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Coaxial Summer: A Cable Series Report Card

Summer officially kicked off last Thursday, but cable networks are already well into an ambitious new season of original programming—and another summer of kicking sand in broadcast networks' faces. In the first three weeks of June, cable shows broke several ratings records, averaging 62.2% of the audience in primetime, up from 61.1% for the same period last year, to broadcast's 29.7%, down from 33.0% last year.

Only about a third of cable's new and returning series have premiered, but, hey, it's never too soon to start calling winners and losers. Here's an early report card.

Turner's Super Summer

The third-season premiere of TNT's cop drama The Closer broke its own record as the most-viewed cable original telecast ever, drawing 8.81 million total viewers (2.91 million of them adults 18-49), according to Nielsen Media Research. That's up 6% in total viewers and 11% in the demo over last year.

New medical drama Heartland lost 51% of its lead-in Closer audience, but it still performed well, with 4.3 million total viewers

At TBS, the back-to-back episodes that launched Tyler Perry sitcom House of Payne on June 6 were the two most-viewed sitcom telecasts ever on cable, with 5.21 million and 5.82 million viewers. The series fell off significantly in its second week, with back-to-back episodes averaging 2.87 million and 3.48 million, respectively, but the trend of adding viewers in the second half-hour is no joke.

The Merry Wives of Cable

Whether rebounding off a failed marriage or enduring the cost of war, wives are winning on cable this summer (polygamists excepted—see Big Love below). USA's limited series The Starter Wife opened big on May 31 with an average 5.4 million viewers and 2.9 million in its target 18-49 demo. Although it has fallen off since (the June 14 episode averaged 3.55 million), it is still a solid performer for the network.

Lifetime's Army Wives premiered June 3 to 3.47 million total viewers, making it the network's biggest series yet. It also achieved the rare feat of growing its audience: The third episode, on June 17, drew 3.84 million viewers, up 9% from the premiere.

Summer on Ice

“Boy! Is this the time to launch shows,” says Lifetime Networks' research and ratings guru Tim Brooks (who, incidentally, will retire at year's end after three decades in TV research). Apparently, that includes shows about driving semi trucks over ice and belated satires of the Bush administration adapted from cellphone video.

Some 3.44 million viewers cooled off with History Channel's Ice Road Truckers on June 17, the network's best-ever numbers for a single telecast. The unscripted series about thrill-seeking long-haulers did well in History's target male demos: 1.3 million for 25-54s and 1.1 million for 18-49s.

And Comedy Central's animated Lil' Bush managed the jump from mobile to TV screen, averaging 2.14 million viewers (1.2 million in adults 18-49) for its June 13 premiere—Comedy's biggest audience for a series premiere since Drawn Together in October 2004.

Lost in the Sun

FX's Rescue Me and USA's The Dead Zone never seemed more aptly titled as they joined several returning summer series in opening to dwindling audiences. The fourth-season premiere of Denis Leary's firefighter drama, on a new night on FX, was off 18% in total viewers (2.79 million) and 20% in adults 18-49 (1.77 million) from last year's opener.

Meanwhile, aging series The Dead Zone (in its sixth season) and The 4400 (in its fourth) fell 32% (to 1.55 million) and 42% (to 2.51 million), respectively, from last year.

HBO's Bummer Summer

Apparently, Sopranos fans were either too upset or too busy debating the show's June 10 finale to watch HBO's series premiere of John From Cincinnati. If anyone got whacked that night, it was the new surf noir series from Deadwood creator David Milch. It retained only 29% of Sopranos viewers, drawing 3.4 million total, and dropped to 1.2 million the next week.

Big Love got even less love than John when it returned June 11, on a new night, for its second season. HBO's polygamist-family drama averaged 4 million viewers last year but drew only 2.2 million for its season-two premiere and dropped to 1.5 million the following week.

All told, probably not the way HBO had hoped to start Life Without Tony.

With Anne Becker