The summer of 2002 should go down as the year that original programming on cable came of age. After years in the shadow of broadcast television and its dominance over audience share, cable's original summer-programming lineup led the industry's collective viewership numbers past the stagnant and rerun-riddled Big Seven's slate for the first time in history.
Leading the charge was original scripted fare from ad-supported basic-cable networks. Usually noted for excellence in reality shows and documentaries, basic services such as USA Network, FX, Lifetime Television, Turner Network Television and Sci Fi Channel surprised the television world by launching several broadcast-quality scripted series to which viewers flocked in unprecedented numbers.
But as the fall season approaches, cable finds itself in an awkward position — trying to meet the scripted-series bar it set during the summer.
Executives say viewers now expect a certain level of quality from cable's original drama and comedy series that may be difficult for many networks to achieve as the industry — with limited financial resources — tries to compete with the broadcast networks for expensive scripted-series projects.
It's still too early to determine whether cable's recent run of successful scripted series is a positive trend or an anomaly, industry observers said.
With the exception of a few breakout hits in the late- to mid-1990s, few scripted basic-cable series garnered much recognition beyond hard-core network fans.
But that changed this year, thanks to the performances of several breakout shows.
"The summer of 2002 was a watershed … it was the point at which viewers said, 'If you bring me a good program, I don't care if it's on cable or broadcast, I'm going to find it at broadcast-level numbers,' " Fox Television Studios president David Grant said. "This summer was the summer where we'll look back and say viewers actually found cable original programs in broadcast-level numbers."
Along with reality series such as MTV: Music Television's The Osbournes, scripted series such as FX's The Shield, TNT's Witchblade, Lifetime's Strong Medicine and USA Network's Monk and The Dead Zone helped propel cable to its most-watched summer ever.
Basic cable's primetime household ratings rose 8.3 percent to a 28.8 average from May 23 through Aug. 25, compared to last summer's 26.6 primetime ratings average from May 24 through August 26, 2001, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
Cable's share of the audience improved 9 percent this summer, to a 53.3, up from a 48.9 a year ago. And household delivery jumped 12 percent, to 30.4 million households from 27.1 million last summer.
In the past basic cable networks — saddled with low penetration numbers, small original-programming budgets and a limited advertiser base — could not afford to create brand-defining scripted programming to match the juggernaut broadcast networks.
Spending is up
But with many networks penetrating more than 80 percent of all U.S. homes — and with a healthy mix of income from advertisers and licensing fees — networks are beginning to spend more money to develop quality series that look and feel like something developed on the broadcast networks.
Programming expenditures by both ad-supported and premium networks totaled more than $9 billion in 2001, a 10.7 percent increase over the previous year, according to data from Kagan World Media.
While networks rarely spent more than $500,000 per episode for a good scripted series, executives now say you'd be hard-pressed to find any under $1 million.
"One of the primary mandates in cable was that it had to be done cheap, and usually you got what you paid for," Grant said. "Now, there's just no way around the cost of the show.
"Why would you be penny-wise and end up with a cheap-looking product, when the only reason to do that product is to help differentiate and brand your network?" Grant added.
Given cable's summer ratings success, most executives believe that networks will aggressively pursue original scripted projects, within budgetary reason.
"Cable is getting more and more worked into our equation," said Eric Frankel, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution, whose parent studio currently produces 18 scripted shows for broadcast television. "Given the success of several series, you'll see a couple of cable networks that can afford to play in that game plan a little more."
Cable is now in a position to effectively vie with the broadcast networks for quality original scripted series, Fox's Grant added.
"If you're a writer and have a top project, and a cable network is saying that they will make that project the real centerpiece of their promotion and air — like FX did for The Shield
and USA did for The Dead Zone
— that's a pretty good thing to hear," Grant said.
But he also cautioned that the influx of cable networks may create more demand than supply and actually dilute the pool of quality scripted series.
"Much like the movie business, because you build 20 more screens it doesn't necessarily mean that there will be 20 more good movies," Grant said. "The question is, how much talent is out there and how much are networks willing to pay for quality shows?"
In that respect, if networks are forced to pay high licensing and production fees to maintain the ratings success scripted series have achieved in recent months, cable could become the victim of its own success.
"The marketplace now knows that cable is capable of getting viewership and ratings of 4.0 and 3.0, so we have to aspire to that, too," Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer said. "If we're saying we want more money for original production in our budget for next year, we have to prove that doing originals, as opposed to just acquiring product, will have a ratings payoff.
"We can no longer say that a 1.3 to 1.5 [rating] is good enough," she said. "We have to aspire to a 2.0 and better."
But many executives said the creation of a strong, popular scripted series is worth the investment, because such a show can literally establish a network brand identity.
A successful scripted series — like Comedy Central's South Park
in the mid-1990s or FX's The Shield
last spring — can propel a network above its competitors.
"Scripted series, in particular, have a certain patina about them," said FX entertainment president Kevin Reilly. "It brings an extra connection with the audience.
"If you're offering characters that audiences connect with over a course of a series, it feels a little more timeless and befits the value of the network."
While such acquired as movies and off-network series can reel in the audience effectively and consistently, Lifetime executive vice president of entertainment Barbara Fisher said services must develop original series to differentiate themselves from the rest of the cable-network pack.
It's been Lifetime's Sunday night triple play of Strong Medicine, For the People
and The Division
that has boosted the network to a nearly two-year reign on top of basic-cable's household ratings charts.
"Your original programming in general defines you as a network," Fisher said. "While Lifetime has success with it's acquired programming [like the off-network The Golden Girls], that's not what's going to give us our identity."
Taking the issue a step further, Grant said networks have to provide something beyond acquired series to justify their rates and subscriber numbers to operators.
"If you were just showing acquired programming, then you are not delivering anything but bandwidth to an audience — you're not delivering anything of new value," Grant said. "While there's always a market for a repeat of something, you have to ask yourself whether you can stand up with a straight face in front of 75 million to 80 million homes and say, 'My whole value is showing something that's already been shown somewhere else.' "
And that value could further depreciate with the emergence of video-on-demand, which is expected to curtail the shelf life for acquired movies.
"What happens when DVDs become $2 a pop, or what happens when viewers have already downloaded that movie into their computer and set-top box?" queried Grant. "How can you say my network is worth $2 to $3 billion, when all I'm bringing is that same movie you've already had an opportunity to see 20 times?"
TNT bucks trend
Still, some networks believe that original scripted series, while important, aren't necessary to validate its brand or value.
TNT, which recently cancelled Witchblade
— its only scripted series —
believes such offerings are but one element in a total programming portfolio, including original movies, acquired series, and high-profile, expensive sports programming such as National Basketball Association games and National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) events.
As such, TNT doesn't need a scripted series to validate its "We Know Drama" brand, or to attract viewers to one of the perennial ratings leaders in both households and key adult demographics, said executive vice president and general manager Steve Koonin.
"We are the only cable network in all of television to have major-league and championship sports combined with broadcast-premiere original movies and original series," Koonin said. "We don't need a series to build an identity — we have a brand. We will build [scripted] series to support the brand, not to define the brand."
Yet USA Network executive vice president, series and longform programming Jeff Wachtel said there's no better way to brand a network and to bring people in to a network on a sustained basis than through scripted series.
"Three or four months ago when you thought of USA, you weren't thinking about Monk
or Dead Zone, but now you do, so that's as important to us as the pure rating … just the fact that it's the home for an interesting show," he said.
Not all about ratings
Indeed, a strong rating is only one ingredient of many that make a scripted series successful for a network. Audience reaction, critical acclaim and strong appeal to a network's core demographic audience also contribute to a series's strength.
"You need great quality and high production value and you need the ratings," said Sci Fi's Hammer, who has watched over the development of several successful series such as the recently cancelled Farscape
and current hit Stargate SG-1.
USA's Wachtel also said pure ownership of a series franchise can dictate a show's long-term viability on a network. That issue is especially important to USA, which yields ownership of Monk
to Touchstone Television, owned by The Walt Disney Co. As a result, the Disney-owned ABC Television Network has repurposing rights to the show.
While Wachtel terms Monk's
repurposing deal a "win-win" for both organizations, he concedes the show would be more valuable to USA if it owned the rights to all windows.
"It's another revenue stream for us and it shows in a strong a way that a basic-cable network can create a television program of equal or better quality than a broadcast network," Wachtel said. "On the other hand, there's a part of us that wishes Monk
was ours alone, to maximize its value."
Wachtel also said a show's advertiser appeal can help dictate its future success, even with subpar ratings. He pointed to The WB's family drama 7th Heaven, which initially generated modest ratings but remained on the air because it was a huge hit with advertisers.
"Even if the numbers hadn't been as good as they ultimately became, The WB would have probably stuck with it, because the advertisers loved that show," he said.
A series' ability to shape and penetrate mainstream culture can also propel it to success. While FX's The Shield
was a runaway ratings hit — it averaged a 2.8 in its freshman season — Reilly said positive critical and audience reaction to the edgy and often-controversial series helped it transcend both FX and cable television.
"My measure is whether we're penetrating the culture beyond the [ratings] numbers," Reilly said. "The Shield's success went beyond its ratings. The show was the topic of discussion around the country, and the awareness for both the show and FX went beyond The Shield's viewership.
"Anecdotally, now people know [series star] Michael Chiklis as that guy from The Shield," Reilly added. It also helped Chiklis take home an Emmy Award for best actor in a dramatic series last month.
Still, a poor ratings performance can make or break the viability of a show. "You need to hit a certain critical [ratings] threshold, because if three people saw the show, what different does it make?" said Reilly.
It's a thin line
But decent ratings don't always guarantee a long life for a scripted series. Other factors — both anticipated and unforeseen — can derail even the strongest of franchises.
In fact, the success rate for scripted series is minimal at best. "How many thousands of series have died trying to become the next South Park
or [The] Sopranos?" Koonin asked.
And since quality series often cost as much as $2 million per episode to produce, many networks no longer enjoy the luxury of allowing even critically acclaimed shows or programs with moderate ratings time to find an audience. Already several high-profile, long-running shows — including Sci Fi's Farscape, A&E Network's Nero Wolfe
and TNT's Witchblade —
have fallen by the wayside after showing the slightest declines in performance.
The four-year old Farscape
had been one of Sci Fi's signature original series. But the outer-space fantasy slipped in the ratings, from a 1.4 rating in 2001 to a 1.2 last year. And expenses — estimated at $1.5 million per episode — continued to rise, forcing Sci Fi into a difficult act of triage.
Sci Fi's decision in August to terminate Farscape
was met with severe condemnation by its fans. Within days of the cancellation, they picketed the network's studios and shut down its electronic-mail server by firing off a barrage of complaints.
"You have to be willing to say, 'Am I willing to risk another season which means I can't put on something that could hit that home run for me?,' " Hammer asked.
"If it's doing fine — and it's not softening — then, more often than not, you'll take the risk. But when you notice that there's continual softening, then you have to say, 'I've got to take a look at it and be fiscally responsible and take a risk that I can produce something with greater quality that can get more eyeballs.' "
Even with an average rating of 2.1, TNT cancelled sophomore Witchblade, because it believed that its only original series had run its creative course.
The series also suffered through several production delays in its second season, due to star Yancy Butler's treatment for substance abuse.
was a hit for us on every measure, but we just felt to do it for a third year wasn't viable," Koonin said. "It's growth was fairly flat, which is one of the reasons we though it played itself out. We wanted to see the series go out on top."
Stars decide, too
Sometimes the end of a series isn't determined in an executive boardroom, but rather in the director's chair or by one of its stars. Lifetime decided not to renew Any Day Now
— a breakout dramatic series — after four seasons, when co-star Annie Potts decided to leave and devote more time to family.
But despite the risks, executives said they're forging ahead with new scripted series.
TNT has failed with several high-profile series, such as Bull
and Breaking News
(which it eventually sold to Bravo, where it debuted last summer to unspectacular ratings). Nonetheless, Koonin said the network has several scripted pilots in development for limited summer runs, but would not provide specific details.
Given the costs and low success rates for such series, though, TNT is not rushing original scripted shows into development.
"We're looking for the right material, but it has to be different, it has to be unique and it has to work for us," said Koonin. "We're patient."
FX in 2003 will debut a rare comedic series, Lucky, which chronicles the life of a compulsive gambler. Reilly said the network hopes to put an additional one or two scripted series in spring to compliment the second season of The Shield,
set to premiere in early 2003.
But others inevitably will remain on the sidelines before jumping in to the scripted-series fires. One cable-network executive who wished to remain anonymous said developing a successful scripted series carries too great a risk for most small and midsize programmers.
"We would love to create a successful original series, but the financial risks of developing a series far outweigh any potential benefits," said the executive. "It's basically a crapshoot."
Still, Sci Fi's Hammer believes that the industry is poised to roll the financial dice on scripted series.
"Given the limited budgets we're working with, you have to closely scrutinize every single project that comes your way," Hammer said. "Each network has to determine whether it's working, based on the financial and rating markers defined by each organization.
"Everybody will have a different tolerance level, but I think it will continue."
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.
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