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Expensive, Uneven, Unpredictable: Who Needs the Drama?

At first, USA Network's latest original drama, Peacemakers, looked like a wild success. For its debut last July, the Old West forensics drama stormed out with a smokin' 4.0 rating debut and 5.2 million viewers. In subsequent weeks, though, about half the audience fled.

and cable's other new dramas have had mixed fortunes this year. On FX, Nip/Tuck
was surprisingly stellar, with an average 3.2 million viewers and ratings equal to those of Emmy winner The Shield. But remember Lucky? Badly named, it turned out. The dark comedy struggled to get above a 1.0 some weeks, and FX balked at a second season.

On Lifetime, new Saturday-night dramas 1-800-Missing
and Wild Card
are drawing around a 2.0 rating and growing but haven't quite caught up with established hits Strong Medicine
and The Division. ESPN's first effort, pro-football drama Playmakers, started out at a strong 2.4 rating but has cooled off. (It's also scheduled oddly: ESPN shows the same episode three times in a row every Tuesday.)

finished its first season averaging 2.9 million viewers—second only to Nip/Tuck
among new shows. But its marks pale against the 4 million-plus viewers that USA's Monk
attracts. And, unfortunately, Peacemakers
skewed old, reducing the chance USA will renew it, insiders say.

Cable's new dramas are rating on par with non-scripted shows like Trading Spaces
and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. One big difference though: Dramas are a lot more expensive.

Are they worth it? That is the question many cable executives looking at scripted programming wrestle with. A scripted show can be great for branding and buzz, but a well-made drama can run upwards of $1.5 million per episode. And cable networks don't get to take nearly as many shots as broadcasters.

U.S. President of Discovery Networks Billy Campbell isn't shopping for scripted shows these days, but the veteran of Miramax Television and CBS Entertainment knows the business well. Scripted development, he says, is an arduous process. Scripted shows "take a long time, are tough to nail down, and it is hard to tinker."

He adds, "It's very hard to turn around a steamship. Also, it is very expensive."

HBO boasts cable's best-known dramas in Six Feet Under
and The Sopranos. But the pay service plays in a very different space than basic channels. HBO can spend a lot more and isn't beholden to ratings. Its shows can push the envelope further.

These days, FX, USA and Lifetime have had the most success with scripted drama. Sci Fi Channel scored with mega-miniseries Taken, but its Tremors
series didn't go very well. A&E's latest drama, co-produced British spy show MI-5,
didn't catch on. TNT has tried and, after a few slips, is gingerly looking to get back in.

Notes Lifetime's head of research Tim Brooks, "There is a growing body of shows, and, just like on broadcast, they don't all work."

TNT is angling to add an original scripted series by 2004 and is already working with Steven Spielberg on a 12-part "limited series" on the American West for summer 2005. Network chief Steve Koonin is treading carefully. "I do want original series," he said recently. "I just want the right ones for us."

The recent Emmy and Golden Globe wins for The Shield
and Monk
help validate basic cable's original efforts. It's a start. Says Brooks, "Viewers have been conditioned to find original drama on cable and like it."

Fox News Channel: the O'Reilly Factor

The MainFactor
TV talk shows typically live and die on the profiles of their guests. But not The O'Reilly Factor. Bill O'Reilly is the star and seems to be the one viewers are stopping in for. When Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dr. Condoleezza Rice appeared last month, they drew 2.1 million to 2.4 million viewers. But just as many showed up for the widow of a slain Philadelphia cop and the principal of a private school in Brooklyn.
O'Reilly is the main draw, with viewers drawn to his righteousness, his showmanship or his take on the news. He's still the biggest thing on Fox News Channel and can take credit for galvanizing viewership of the other talent in the Fox evening lineup, who in turn consistently outdraw the former star of prime time cable news, Larry King. O'Reilly's recent fourth book Who's Looking Out for You
immediately hit the New York Times
bestseller list but last week was sandwiched at No. 2 between books by liberal combatants Michael Moore and Al Franken. That mild irony probably doesn't signal any political wind shifts that Fox News has to worry about. —John M. Higgins

USA: Monk

Quirky Works
In year one, USA Network's quirky detective drama Monk
was repurposed on ABC. In year two, star Tony Shaloub won an Emmy. Not bad for a cable show.
In its sophomore season this past summer, Monk
averaged an impressive 4.4 million viewers, just about double USA's usual prime time marks. In January, the show returns with seven fresh episodes and, come next summer, will hatch another new batch.
Monk's accolades and Nielsen marks reinforce what USA President Doug Herzog and his troops have said all along: Monk
is a reason to watch cable.
Original programming "is about giving viewers something they can't get on broadcast television," says Herzog. "If you give them a watered-down version, you'll always be seen as second-string." And, at about $1.5 million per episode, the price tag for Monk
is in the same ballpark as some network dramas (although a middling network drama still draws twice as many viewers).
The television industry is already buzzing about Monk's someday going into syndication. Of course, it will be some time before the series amasses the 88 episodes necessary for a second run, but, given the success so far, says Herzog, "you have to figure the show will endure." —Allison Romano


Get Your Motor Runnin'
Lots of TV executives and analysts get agitated over the surging cost of sports rights. But one thing even critics agree on: NASCAR is worth it.
The races fuel the ratings of four networks: cable nets TNT and FX and broadcasters NBC and Fox. NASCAR events regularly score among the highest-rated programs on cable, generating 4.0-plus Nielsen household ratings for networks whose daytime ratings average well under a 1.0.
Not that the races are money-makers: Morgan Stanley media analyst Richard Bilotti estimates that TNT lost about $50 million on NASCAR last year and FX about $19 million.
But even he expects FX to start making a profit simply on ad sales—nearly unheard of in the money-losing TV sports game, where networks bet that they can promote the rest of their schedules during races and games.
NASCAR is trying to broaden its appeal outside of its Southeast core. One big move next year will be to hand a lucrative Labor Day race date to a track in California, where ratings have been subpar. That's partly to please sponsors that want national reach for their NASCAR promotions. The circuit is also scheduling more races in prime time to maximize viewership and is even considering making the biggest race, the Daytona 500, a night race. —John M. Higgins