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Cable's Got Game in Primetime

For years, anyone seeking to catch original programming shows on cable could only find them on traditionally unfavorable and low-viewership nights, when the broadcast networks scheduled weak and relatively unproven shows.

Nowadays, cable networks — buoyed by critically acclaimed and ratings-rich series and original movies — are challenging the broadcast networks for viewers virtually every night.

During the 2002-03 TV season (Sept. 23, 2002 to Sept. 21, 2003) basic-cable networks posted gains in viewership share each night of the week, compared to 2001-02, according to Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau's analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. Consequently, broadcast shares were down for five of the seven days compared to the same period in 2001-2002.

Once leery of competing with broadcasters on nights with high HUT (households using television) levels, executives said cable is now taking the fight to the networks throughout the week.

Networks such as Lifetime Television, FX, TLC, Bravo, Sci Fi Channel, Comedy Central, USA Network, Court TV and even ESPN are creating a bevy of original shows that routinely draw significant audiences away from the broadcast networks.

"The strategy had been in years past to go where [the broadcasters] weren't," Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer said. "Now we've gotten far more sophisticated and aggressive, and now the networks have to look at the entire landscape and figure out how to compete with us, not the other way around."

But what are viewers actually watching on a nightly basis? A look at the top shows reveals that viewers are not wedded to a particular network or even a particular programming genre, but rather are gravitating to programming that appeals to them on a nightly basis.

Although weekly original series get most of the critical acclaim and ratings attention, it would be difficult to provide a complete picture of cable's dramatic primetime performance without recognizing stripped series such as Court TV's Forensic Files
and Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants
and The Fairly OddParents. These shows consistently rank among the industry's top-rated entries, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data for the 2002-03 television season.

Also, it's impossible to ignore the strong ratings performances from acquired theatrical movies, as well as off-network drama series like Law & Order, which continues to generate high primetime ratings for Turner Network Television.

This past summer (May 26 to Aug. 31), TNT's 8 p.m. airing of Law & Order
helped the network draw more 18-to-49-year-olds than all other ad-supported cable networks during three out of five weekdays. It also topped all cable offerings Monday through Friday among adults 25 to 54, according to a Turner Entertainment Research analysis of Nielsen data. (From late October through June, TNT pre-empts Law & Order
on Thursdays for its National Basketball Association coverage.)

"Law & Order
has great characters, great storytelling and we present it an exciting way," said Steve Koonin, executive vice president and chief operating officer of TBS Superstation and TNT. "Law & Order
is like television nicotine: It's so addictive."

The following is a breakdown of how cable's top original series performers stack up each night of the week.

Traditionally one of the top HUT nights, Sundays have also become one of the best viewership nights for cable programming.

"It's been a very successful night for broadcast and for cable throughout the years," said Lifetime senior vice president of research and TV historian Tim Brooks.

ESPN's 16-week Sunday Night Football
telecasts from September through December annually finish among the top-rated shows of the year.

During the summer, ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball telecasts continue to draw a significant amount of male viewers.

The dramatic duo of The Division
and Strong Medicine
have been female-skewed and have given Lifetime a formidable punch on Sunday nights since the late 1990s, when the channel debuted Any Day Now.

The network took a gamble by launching original series on Sundays, said Lifetime executive vice president of entertainment Barbara Fisher. Executives there felt neither the cable nor broadcast networks were providing quality dramatic programming targeted to and prominently featuring women.

Network research showed a significant amount of women were watching television on Sundays, said Fisher, but weren't being served by cable or broadcast networks.

"Since women were watching on Sunday nights, we asked ourselves, 'What could we do to capture their attention? Let's have female starring shows and female-centric shows,' " Fisher said. "We totally acknowledge that today everybody is going after the female audience and there certainly are a lot more female stars out there in dramas.

While Lifetime and ESPN set the pace for the basic cable networks, Home Box Office has become the night's standard bearer for all of cable, and arguably all of television.

Mostly known for its Saturday-night lineup of original and theatrical movies and boxing matches, the network sought to expand its audience on Sundays with the development of original franchises in the late 1990s, according to HBO executive vice president of programming planning Dave Baldwin.

Fast-forward to today, and HBO — through the success of such groundbreaking series as The Sopranos, Sex and the City
and Six Feet Under
— has fully established itself as the destination for young male and female viewers on a year-round basis.

"As the old bank robber, Willie Sutton, once said, 'It's where the money is,' " Baldwin said. "We looked at Sunday night and determined that's where the audience is.

Tuesday slam

While cable has established a stronghold on Sunday for a few years now, this summer saw Tuesday nights become a juggernaut for industry originals.

Five new original shows — FX's Nip/Tuck; Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
and Boy Meets Boy,
ESPN's Playmakers
and A&E's MI5
have made Tuesdays one of the most competitive nights ever for cable.

Each series has averaged more than a 1.0 rating — a remarkable feat, since all five one-hour shows air from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Queer Eye
and Nip/Tuck
in particular averaged well over a 2 rating, despite running simultaneously at 10 p.m.

Add to that MTV: Music Television's strong one-two punch of The Osbournes
and The Real World, which reach a significant amount of 18-to-34-year-olds, and it's easy to see why cable's household delivery on Tuesday nights grew 5% during the 2002-03 season, versus the prior year. Conversely, broadcast's delivery was down 2%.

Bravo president Jeff Gaspin said the lack of strong broadcast-network programs during the summer made Tuesday a perfect night to launch new programming for cable.

"Audiences will flock to new shows with a buzz, so it wasn't a surprise that audiences would go where the original programming is," Gaspin said. "The competition didn't matter — we all survived quite nicely."

Even beyond the summer, some of the shows have also remained viable draws even against first-run broadcast series. Nip/Tuck's Sept. 20 episode, for example, drew one of its highest ratings of the year, with a 3.5 in the midst of new episodes from such broadcast powerhouses as ABC's NYPD Blue, CBS's Judging Amy
and NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

But FX's Tuesday performance isn't that surprising: The network began cultivating audiences nearly two years ago, with its controversial breakthrough series The Shield. The series, starring Michael Chiklis as an ethically challenged detective, instantly found an audience and helped establish an FX presence on Tuesdays, according to senior vice president of planning and research Steve Leblang.

Of course, both The Shield
and Nip/Tuck
— which focuses on the lives of two morally corrupt plastic surgeons — were aided by intense press coverage due to both shows' often explicit language and sexual material, content that Leblang said is needed to break though the morass of programming clutter.

Bravo's Queer Eye
also benefited from an awareness boost provided by numerous airings on sister broadcast channel NBC, as well as guest appearances on such shows as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Finding viewers on Fridays, Saturdays

Cable has capitalized on the fact that broadcasters offer weaker shows on Friday and Saturday nights to build very strong and loyal followings.

As a result, cable's household delivery during the 2002-03 season was up 6% on Fridays and 7% on Saturdays, respectively, compared to the 2001-02 TV season.

For their part, the broadcast networks, were down 2% on Friday and 5% on Saturday, season to season.

"Friday and Saturdays are the undiscovered jewels for cable," said Lifetime's Brooks. "The broadcasters get so obsessed with Sunday through Thursday — and they only have so much lead product to deal with — that they've shortchanged Friday and Saturday."

Viacom Inc.-owned pay service Showtime, Disney Channel and Universal Group's Sci-Fi Channel and USA Network have proven that not everyone starts their weekend parties early.

Showtime's emerging original series, including Street Time
and Dead Like Me,
have found a place among a bevy of young, female-skewing viewers who stay home and watch television, said network officials.

Disney Channel premieres of original movies such as The Cheetah Girls
and new episodes of popular series such as The Proud Family
and Kim Possible
have driven tweens, teens and even adults 18 to 34 to the service, according to network officials. The network's original Friday lineup triggered a 46% jump in overall primetime ratings during third quarter 2003, compared to the same period last year.

Sci Fi, meanwhile, has cultivated a loyal viewership among adults 18 to 49 through its original-series block, featuring Stargate-SG-1, the recently cancelled Tremors: The Series
and freshman skein Scare Tactics.

Overall, the network ranks fourth in ratings and delivery among all cable networks in reaching adults 18 to 49 on Fridays, trailing movie-centric TNT and TBS, as well as sister service USA Network, which offers the hit show Monk
during the evening.

starring Tony Shalhoub as a detective with obsessive compulsive disorder, is the top-rated scripted sitcom on cable.

"In terms of original programming, we heard a lot from our viewers that Friday night was a night that people didn't necessarily feel there was a show out there for them," network executive vice president and general manager Michelle Ganeless said. "ABC offers [its] TGIF [block of younger-skewing shows], but our core 25-to-54 viewers were looking for a show that they felt was made for them. Monk
turned out to be the highest-rated show on cable, despite not being the highest HUT level night."

Universal's success, however, has prompted other networks to test the Friday-night waters. TLC recently moved two of its new series —What Not to Wear
and While You Were Out
— from Saturday to Friday, in an effort to attract young women home for the evening, TLC vice president of programming and general manager Roger Marmet said.

With its new lineup, TLC earned its highest, third-quarter Friday-night ratings ever among adults 25 to 54 (0.86), women 25 to 54 (1.18), adults 18 to 49 (0.82) and women 18 to 49 (1.15).

TLC sweeps Saturdays

Of course, the network's primary beachhead is Saturdays, where its phenomenally successful reality series Trading Spaces
continues to attract a huge following.

Marmet admits that the show, which helped TLC place first in household ratings in prime time on Saturday nights during the 2002-03 season, has benefited from the lack of competitive programming during the evening.

"Sure, the HUT levels are lower, but we saw it as a real opportunity to break through," he added. "I don't know if we would have gotten noticed by viewers as much launching on a Thursday night.

The home-makeover show has certainly found a loyal female audience: Marmet said that its audience is 65% to 70% women, and is also reaching a significant number of tween viewers.

But recently it has received some stiff competition for the female viewer from Lifetime, which in August launched two new original series, Wild Card
and 1-800-Missing.

While cognizant of TLC's pull among women, Lifetime's Fisher said the network pushed a Saturday original-programming lineup anyway, to provide another promotional platform for its Sunday series, as well as provide a scripted, dramatic alternative to Trading Spaces.

"We score real strong in dramas and dramas series, [and] it made great flow sense with our Sunday lineup and leading to Monday [original movies]," Fisher said. "While we go after the same audience in a lot of ways, we provide an alternative to the programming that you see on TLC."

For years, young men and boys have flocked to Comedy Central Wednesdays at 10 p.m. to watch the weekly antics of the foul-mouthed South Park

Comedy Central has been able to parlay the success of South Park
to launch several ratings-rich shows such as Chappelle's Show
last January and, more recently, the police spoof Reno 911!," said network senior vice president of original programming and head of development Lauren Corrao.

"South Park
has lived for a very long time and done extremely well in the ratings, so when we're launching new shows we look for the most compatible shows and also the most viewers that are already watching us to begin with," she said. "It doesn't mean that every show we put behind South Park
is successful, but at least we're giving it the best platform."

Targeting an older, male-skewing audience during the evening is USA's Western drama Peacemakers.

Averaging a robust 3.0 household rating, the series — starring Tom Berenger — has established itself as one of the highest-rated new shows of the year.

"Wednesday night was a great tool to launch Peacemakers, since our ratings have been strong since we launched our 'Action Wednesdays' [movie block]," Ganeless said. "It was the right demographic base. Action movies skew a bit more male, so that was appropriate to lead into a Western."

MTV — on the strength of several series, such as Sorority Life, and TBS Superstation — with its lone original series, Ripley's Believe It or Not, also draw their fair share of adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen.

Best of the rest

ABC's venerable Monday Night Football, CBS's popular comedy block, featuring Everybody Loves Raymond
and its drama series CSI: Miami, and NBC's Third Watch
have largely kept cable at bay relative to launching original, scripted programming, according to industry observers.

Still, that's not to say that some networks aren't taking their shots. World Wrestling Entertainment-produced pro wrestling programming, now on Spike TV following a long run on USA, has been a bastion of testosterone and young male viewers for years. WWE fare pinned a 3.8 rating last season for the male-targeted network.

Elsewhere, Discovery Channel's block of male-targeted reality shows such as Monster House, Monster Garage
and American Chopper
have drawn relatively consistent ratings.

Thursday night is arguably the least competitive for cable against the broadcast networks. Industry observers say NBC's powerful three-hour block, hammocked by top-rated shows Friends
and ER
— as well as CBS's powerful pairing of Survivor
and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
— continues to be too powerful for cable networks to tackle, beyond several ultra-niche shows.

TNT has made some viewership inroads among males with its National Basketball Association telecasts, but for the most part networks have shied away from launching original shows.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.