Dramatic Summer Gains

It was a dramatic summer for cable this year, as a deluge of scripted dramas helped to drive its primetime viewership, obliterating old records.

The season proved to be a veritable golden age for original cable shows, with a parade of programming that included Lifetime Television’s Army Wives, TNT’s Saving Grace, FX’s Damages, USA Network’s Burn Notice and The Starter Wife, and AMC’s Mad Men.

“It’s the summer of scripted series, big-time, on basic cable,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s executive vice president of research. “Not only did cable have a bumper crop of brand-new scripted series, but it front-loaded the summer with them.”

But that wasn’t cable’s only big story from late May through August. Disney Channel enjoyed a blazing summer, thanks to not only the cultural phenomenon High School Musical 2, but also the strong performance of franchise shows such as Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. As a result, Disney Channel was the No. 1-rated cable network in primetime this summer.

In the end, the network hit several other big markers. High School Musical 2 won the distinction of being basic cable’s most-watched telecast of all time, with a whopping 10.2 rating and 17.2 million viewers for its Aug. 17 debut.

And Disney Channel attracted the largest primetime summer audience on record for any cable network, averaging 3.1 million viewers. That beat the previous highs of USA in 2006 and TNT in 2005 by 7%, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Overall, for the second summer, ad-supported cable beat the broadcast networks in primetime household viewing by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen data.

Ad-supported cable garnered a 62.9 share this summer, a new record, compared with a 62.1 last summer. Broadcast mustered only a 27.6 share, compared with 30.5 for last year, according to Turner.

And for the first summer ever, cable also beat the broadcast networks by a 2-to-1 margin — 52.5 versus a 24.1 share — for adults 18 to 49, a key ad-sales demographic.

“It is the bread and butter of the industry, the most common demographic that people are buying and selling,” said Turner Broadcasting System chief research officer Jack Wakshlag.

It seems that this summer cable programmers all got the memo: Scripted shows can help a network to break out.

“There’s never been a summer with as many big scripted-series launches, which is in stark relief, of course, to what the broadcasters were doing, which was all reality stuff, hardly any scripted stuff at all,” Brooks said. “Cable and broadcast went in very different directions.”

According to Wakshlag: “What you’re seeing now is [that] a number of networks know that original programming in the summertime is a good policy. People are there. They will watch. The numbers can be strong.”

Over time, cable programmers “have come to realize that nothing takes the place of scripted series to brand your network, to bring new viewers into your network,” said Brooks. “It’s like a marquee. It’s a doorway into your network, which you then use to promote the rest of your schedule.”

And successful scripted shows can be used as launch pads for new programs, as either platforms to promote them or as strong lead-ins to them.

Thus, The Closer provided strong audience flow for Saving Grace on Monday nights, and Lifetime tried to establish a Sunday-night franchise by adding Side Order of Life and State of Mind to that evening’s lineup, which already had Army Wives.

USA added to its roster of scripted series — a group that includes Monk, Psych, The 4400 and The Dead Zone — scoring a hit with Burn Notice.

Brooks noted that this summer, a wider array of cable networks tried their hand at scripted fare, including some owned by media conglomerates.

“You’ve got so many players with deep pockets, often with studios linked to them through their corporate ownership, that can give them top-drawer stuff,” Brooks said.

And the new shows were launched with big marketing pushes, he added.

“It’s a whole new way of approaching scripted series, based on the fact that those scripted series can make or break a network,” Brooks said.

The poster child for scripted dramas on basic cable was TNT’s continuing success with The Closer. The police procedural is ad-supported cable’s No. 1 series of all time.

Season-to-date, the Kyra Sedgwick vehicle is averaging a 6.2 household rating and 8 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

Lifetime managed to hit gold with Army Wives, the women’s network’s biggest hit ever.

In the overall summer primetime ratings for basic-cable networks, Disney Channel scored a 2.5, up 9% from last summer, according to Disney’s analysis. It was followed by USA Network, which posted a 2.2 rating, down 8% from a year ago. TNT ranked third in primetime this summer, with a 2.0 rating, down 9%.

But TNT ranked as ad-supported cable’s No. 1 network in total day for the summer and year to date among adults 18 to 49 and adults 25 to 54.

But USA was No. 1 in primetime this summer for ad-supported cable in homes, viewers and adult key demographics, like 18 to 49.