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Cable TV's Flagship Shows

With NCTA 2008 gearing up in New Orleans, it's a good time for cable networks to be a little self-reflective. In my last column, I asked what shows in particular gave broadcast networks their identity. So now I ask the cable networks: When viewers think of you, what are they likely to think of first?

The slogan “It's not TV, it's HBO” no longer works. These days, even HBO is TV—and a lot of other cable networks offer series that have the sheen and ambition normally associated with HBO.

The HBO sheen, where most people thinking of “quality TV” on cable automatically thought of HBO first, no longer applies. It's a brave new world out there. HBO has made some missteps of late (such as dropping Deadwood, which still hurts), and competitors have made some terrific new series.

There are hundreds of cable networks in the big city. Here are my current impressions of a few of them, starting with HBO.

Sex and the City is coming up on the big screen, not the small one, and The Sopranos ended abruptly—very abruptly—long ago. HBO's best new shows of late have been either bold but cultish, as in Flight of the Conchords and In Treatment, or short-term triumphs such as John Adams and The Wire creator David Simon's upcoming new seven-part series about Iraq, July's Generation Kill.

HBO needs another Six Feet Under, and may have it with that show's creator, Alan Ball, and his upcoming HBO True Blood vampire series, starring Anna Paquin. Or maybe not.

Showtime, on the other hand, had a much better creative year than HBO. Weeds, Californication, The L Word, even the less impressive but flashier The Tudors—all of them are returning for more, and pleasing their respective loyal audiences. The network's acquisition of Great Britain's Diary of a Call Girl, beginning in June, may get a big bump courtesy of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's prostitution-ring scandal, and the network's development slate, looking for its own Sopranos hit, includes a comedy starring that mob drama's female lead, Edie Falco.

Showtime's home-run ball, though, and the one show to claim its identity right now, is Dexter, the first season of which just was repeated on CBS, attracting millions of new viewers. Dexter is everything for Showtime that The Sopranos was for HBO: different, bold, quirky, exciting, morally ambiguous and ultimately unforgettable.

Other networks? FX basically invented the strategy of defining a cable network one show at a time, and its track record is impressive enough to make most of its rivals salivate. From the launch of The Shield in 2002, FX has given us Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck and, more recently, The Riches and the brilliant Damages. FX has built a reputation for shows with edgy antiheroes—and because the audience accepts that, it comes to FX expecting, and embracing, riskier and more outrageous protagonists and programs.

AMC gets the award for doing the most the fastest. Out of nowhere, it gave us the miniseries Western Broken Trail, then the series Mad Men and Breaking Bad. AMC's image, which used to be old movies, is now a cutting-edge new retro series: Mad Men, which HBO turned down.

TNT, instead of just rerunning Law & Order series ad infinitum, has cable's surprise monster hit, The Closer—an image-redefining series by any measure. (Saving Grace doesn't quite measure up as a companion show, but the network is still looking, including with an upcoming legal series, Raising the Bar, from Steven Bochco.) BBC America looks to have an attention-grabber with Torchwood, Lifetime established a big winner in Army Wives, Sci Fi Channel is at the end of a strong run with Battlestar Galactica, and though Bravo appears to be losing Project Runway, it still has Top Chef.

Disney Channel boasts the High School Musical franchise and good old (and apparently getting older) Hannah Montana, Nickelodeon has SpongeBob SquarePants, and Animal Planet has Meerkat Manor. Think of those shows, and you think of those networks—and vice versa.

On the flip side, Court TV abandoned its original mission so completely that it had to change its name to TruTV, which is famous for what? Nothing. And VH1, once known for mature music, gets top ratings by immature bottom-feeding, presenting such awful offal as Flavor of Love.

And what in the world is TV Land doing these days? Two words: Everything wrong. That network, even more so than Nick at Nite, ought to be embracing and showcasing old TV series, not making horrid, tacky new ones like TV Land's useless reality series, The Big 4-0.

TV Land should do what Turner Classic Movies is doing to provide its signature show, and pair a host and guest host to present and discuss The Essentials. On TCM, it's classic old movies. On TV Land, it should be classic old television.

TV Land could even twist HBO's old slogan to its own advantage. In this case, “It is TV!”