'Monk’s’ Habit of Success

Cable said goodbye this month to one of its iconic and trailblazing shows, as the industry embarks on potentially its most fruitful period ever in terms of scripted originals.

USA Network turned the lights out on Monk for the last time Dec. 4, ending what was arguably the most influential scripted series in cable history.

When USA Network launched the dramedy starring Tony Shalhoub as the lovable obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk in 2002, very few cable networks even considered playing in the same sandbox as the broadcast networks with regard to developing scripted shows.

Eight years later — due in no small measure to the ratings and critical success of the three-time Emmy-winning Monk — not only has cable clearly defined its space in that sandbox, but several networks are poised to throw some sand in broadcast’s face.

USA Network, TNT and FX combined are expected to offer nearly 20 original scripted dramas, comedies and animated series in 2010. A&E Network, ABC Family, Lifetime, AMC and Comedy Central plan to continue charting the scripted-series courses they launched over the past few years, while TV Land and MTV will dip into scripted waters in 2010.

On the premium side, Showtime and HBO will continue to battle for Emmy statuettes with their various scripted offerings, while Starz will seek to break through with its new dramatic series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Executives say the investment in developing scripted fare — most series average between $1 million and $2 million per episode — is worth the big audiences and advertising dollars that such shows can generate. A strong scripted series can do wonders for a network’s overall brand identity: Other than live sports programming, no programming genre can better establish a network brand by delivering strong ratings than scripted fare.

And given cable’s dual affiliate-fee/advertising revenue model and its often niche-oriented status, a scripted series doesn’t necessarily have to generate gargantuan ratings numbers to have a long and successful tenure on a cable network. In fact, the lion’s share of scripted cable series launched over the last five years are still on the air, in stark contrast to the less-than-stellar return rate of scripted content on the more mainstream, performance-oriented broadcast networks.

Scripted shows give cable networks the ability to target their respective demos with strong storylines and well-developed characters that they can identify with. When successful, such shows also deliver ratings well above the network’s primetime average.

USA’s portfolio of scripted content will lead the “Characters Welcome” network to a repeat win as the most watched basic network on cable. In 2009 the network aired five series that averaged more than 4 million viewers — nearly twice USA Network’s current primetime average. One of those shows was Monk, which performed the feat for most of its eight-season run.

So it’s apropos that the series — which, along with FX’s The Shield, opened the doors for cable to have the confidence and will to develop The Closer, Mad Men, The Cleaner and The Secret Life of the American Teenager — ended its incredible run on top of the cable world by drawing 9.4 million viewers, the biggest audience ever for a scripted drama series.

But Monk’s legacy won’t be defined by how long it is able to maintain that lofty record but rather by how quickly that record is surpassed by other scripted fare. The continued success of cable’s scripted series will be the greatest testament to Monk’s influence on the cable-programming landscape.

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.