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Can Cable Stage a Fall Encore?

Cable, coming off a sizzling summer, hopes to ride that momentum into the fall, when broadcast brings on its onslaught of new programming.

Cable officials said they're undaunted about competing against broadcast's new — and heavily promoted — lineups. They still expect their medium to continue on its growth curve, despite the barrage of original scripted series that the Big Four and weblets such as The WB and UPN will introduce.


This summer, cable increased its primetime share to just over 60%, a gain of about 7% from last summer and roughly double the 3% to 4% increases cable has enjoyed in the prior two summers, according to Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's executive vice president of research. Broadcast was down about 11%, he said.

“In the past, big summers for cable have tended to translate into strong falls for cable as well, which has eroded the broadcasters' traditional dominance when they come back with their original series at the end of September,” Brooks said last week.

He expects more of the same this fall, as does Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

“Broadcast's strongest quarter will remain fourth quarter, but it will not be strong enough to outdeliver cable,” Wakshlag said. “The trends that have existed will continue.”

Last November was the first time cable outdelivered broadcast in that sweeps period, he pointed out. “We said at that time that broadcast would never win another sweep,” Wakshlag said. “And I think that will remain true.”

Cable capped the summer with a record-breaking, all-time high 61.1 primetime share, versus a 57.0 a year ago, its fifth consecutive summer victory over broadcast, according to a Turner Entertainment analysis of Nielsen Media Research data released last week. With its 32.0 share, compared with 36.2 last year, broadcast sustained its worse summer decline since 1997, according to Turner's analysis.


Turner Network Television, catapulted by ratings winners such as The Closer and Into the West, enjoyed a particularly hot summer this year, handily winning the primetime viewership crown.

TNT racked up a 2.4 primetime rating, up 14% from last summer's 2.1, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen data. In fact, TNT became the first cable network to outdeliver two broadcast networks, The WB and UPN, in households and persons 2 and older in primetime during a summer, according to Turner.

In terms of individual cable-network rankings, USA Network — with Monk still performing strongly — and Disney Channel tied for second place this summer, with a 2.0 rating each.

USA was down 5%, while Disney Channel was up 5%.

As usual, cable unleashed a barrage of new series this summer, a number of them scripted shows that turned into hits, like TNT's The Closer and Lifetime's Beach Girls.

“I don't think I've ever seen so many scripted dramas among the highest-rated cable shows,” said Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research and planning for Viacom Inc.'s cable networks, film and publishing.

Cable debuted about 50 shows, compared with 20 last summer, according to Brooks. Broadcast bowed 21 series, with only two of them scripted and the rest reality-based — despite viewers' recent attraction to shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives, according to Brooks.

“Cable tended to serve the desire of viewers, expressed last year, to see more scripted stuff,” he said.

This fall a couple of cable networks, such as USA and National Geographic Channel, are debuting new series. But typically, cable's strategy has been to take advantage of the summer to launch new series and avoid premiering them during the fall, when they would have to compete against all the hype surrounding the Big Four's new programs.


For example, this fall, Lifetime and FX have opted to run new episodes of returning series. FX's high-rated Nip/Tuck, for example, will kick off its new season Sept. 20.

FX did premiere several new series during the summer, like Over There, but it didn't want “to crowd” its summer schedule, a network spokesman said. So it opted to air the new season of popular Nip/Tuck this fall, and believes the edgy show can “hold its own” against broadcast's new fall offerings, according to the FX spokesman.

USA has more going on this fall than most cable networks. First of all, it will actually be debuting a new reality series, Made in the USA, Sept. 14. Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and Sci Fi Channel, described it as “an upbeat inventor show.” Contestants will compete to have their invention sold on HSN, the shopping network.

Secondly, on Oct. 3, World Wrestling Entertainment's Monday Night Raw, a ratings dynamo, returns to USA from Spike TV. Spike is expected to take a ratings hit as a result.

USA has started running promos for wrestling, a genre that fits very nicely within the network's new “Characters Welcome” branding, according to Hammer.

“We hope to have a huge bang with the WWE,” she said. “We're incorporating the WWE franchise into our brand so it looks like it belongs seamlessly on our air. People saw the disconnect before.

“This is the first time that the WWE will live literally inside of our brand and be embraced and cherished like everything else that's on the air.”

As to the impact on Spike, Frank agreed that “it's certainly never easy when a real signature show is not going to be there, but I think Spike has some great shows in development.”

She pointed out that Ultimate Fighter and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are performing well for Spike.

“All we need is one or two of these new originals to hit,” Frank said.

Finally, both USA and its sister service, Sci Fi Channel, this fall will repurpose several new shows that will be premiering this season on broadcast cousin NBC.

NBC's alien-invasion saga Surface will get runs on Sci Fi Channel, while the broadcast network's Three Wishes and E-Ring will reair on USA. Hammer preferred to call the repurposed shows “promotional screenings,” offering more exposure and sampling for the NBC programs.

“With a show like Surface, where better to put it than a devoted sci-fi audience that loves that stuff?” Hammer said. “NBC just happens to be fortunate because it has cablers on its roster where it absolutely makes sense and it fits perfectly. So they should be taking advantage of it.”

Frank points to such repurposing as part of the ongoing evolution to one TV world, with the lines between broadcast and cable blurring. Nonetheless, she believes cable can't be complacent going in to the fall.

“You always want to approach the fall season from a position of strength, and clearly we spent the summer showing viewers there's great stuff on cable,” Frank said. “But at the same time, you never want to take for granted the fact that this is when the broadcasters roll out the big guns and their promotional machines to introduce new shows.”