In the past, broadcast would hang a "gone fishing" sign during the summer and just air reruns. This gave cable a great opportunity to premiere original programming, treating viewers to something new.
Times have changed. This summer, cable faces an onslaught of much-hyped-and high-rated-blockbuster programming from the broadcast networks. Cable will have to survive primetime competition from CBS' reality-based newcomers, Survivor and Big Brother, as well as from ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
It's no fluke that Millionaire debuted last summer and managed to get a nice toehold with viewers back then, when there was little being offered by its broadcast brethren at NBC and CBS. Now it looks like CBS' first summer entrée this year, Survivor, will be this summer's hit. It beat once-invincible Millionaire last week.
"It's inevitable that the broadcasters would wake up to the fact that that the summer is a great time to gain the attention of the American public," Showtime executive vice president of original programming Mark Zakarin said. "In the summer, you have the chance to make a splash."
That's why Showtime is premiering new series and new episodes of returning shows for five nights during the week of June 26, including the debuts of Resurrection Blvd. and Soul Food.
A number of cable programmers conceded that the playing field has gotten tougher this year for the avalanche of original cable shows-both series and made-for-TV movies-that will debut from now through August.
"It would seem egotistical to say that we're not at all worried," Turner Network Television president of original programming Bob DeBitetto said. "The broadcast networks have less of a willingness to forfeit the summer.So yes, there's more competition, but summer remains a very attractive platform for us."
As for competing against shows such as Millionaire and Survivor, Comedy Central general manager Bill Hilary said, "I have no doubt that it will affect cable across the board ... But there is a lot of hype, so let's see the reality of what happens."
Like DeBitetto, many cable programmers said that even with series such as Survivor and Millionaire competing for eyeballs, the summer is still their best shot at getting viewership and media coverage for their new shows. That's why TNT will launch its first original hour-long dramatic series, Bull, Aug. 15.
Launching a series on cable in the fall is still a suicide mission compared with the summer, according to cable-network executives. So while broadcast is offering experimental, low-budget reality shows this summer, cable is serving up scripted dramas, like Bull, and comedies.
Still, Hilary said, the stepped-up summer competition from broadcast is prompting Comedy to rethink its summer-premiere strategy and to stagger its series with fall "mini-premieres."
"The truth is that this is going to cause cable programmers to radically rethink scheduling," he said. "We're developing shows all year round, and we are more nimble about scheduling them."
Most cable networks are still embracing the summer. Sci Fi Channel, for example, is touting its "No-Repeat Sci Fi Summer," airing all-new episodes of its original series all summer. Last week, Sci Fi debuted its series The Invisible Man, and Crossing Over with John Edwards premieres July 9.
"There's still less competition than the fall," Sci Fi general manager Bonnie Hammer said. "The press will pay attention to us now. There's less noise."
Lifetime Television will take the plunge and premiere its new original hour-long drama, Strong Medicine, July 29. "The summer is still the optimal season for us," Lifetime senior vice president of research Tim Brooks said.
Cable's primetime ratings gains in the summer have been shrinking. In primetime last summer, basic cable was up 7 percent from the prior year, to a 25.1, according to Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data. In contrast, the "Big Four" were down 4 percent, to a 22.3.
While basic cable saw a gain last year, the increase was much less than what it enjoyed the prior summer. In 1998, cable's primetime ratings jumped a whopping 15 percent to a 23.5.
This summer, broadcast's primetime assault is more substantial. In addition to Survivor, Millionaire is airing several times per week. And Big Brother, which premieres July 6, will run five days per week through Sept. 30.
Nonetheless, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. vice president of audience research Bob Sieber predicted cable will see primetime ratings gains this summer of 5 percent to 7 percent.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, Survivor goes head-to-head against Ripley's Believe It or Not! on TBS Superstation.
"Competition is just a reality," said TBS senior vice president of original programming Jim Head.
Cable programmers also pointed out that even though Millionaire and Big Brother will air several times per week, those shows fill only a tiny fraction of the many hours that are programmed.
"It's a very small percent of the broadcast hours," MTV Networks executive vice president of research and development Betsy Frank said. "There will still be a lot of reruns on the air on broadcast."
That's the same take VH1 executive vice president of programming Jeff Gaspin has about broadcast's primetime summer contenders, such as Survivor.
"Cable is about 24-hour programming seven days a week," he said. "When you look at the big picture, it really doesn't affect us much. It really just means a few more land mines for us."
VH1 will premiere four original movies and four new series this summer.
And Home Box Office will premiere a late-night reality series, G-String Divas, in August, senior vice president of program planning Dave Baldwin said.
Cable programmers said they see an edge over broadcast in that their scripted dramas and comedies are an alternative to reality-based series such as Survivor and Big Brother. In the latter show, 10 strangers will live together under the 24-hour watch of TV cameras.
USA Network will premiere two offbeat comedies, Kill! Kill! Kill! and Manhattan, AZ, July 23, while its new hour-long drama, The Huntress, will join the lineup July 26.
"We are counterprogramming with comedies that are very physical," USA Cable president Stephen Chao said. "We obviously believe deeply in the shows we're launching. Is it harder with Millionaire, Survivor and Big Brother? Sure."
At MTV: Music Television, president of programming Brian Graden sees the summer as a chance to premiere scripted series when younger-skewing broadcast networks are laying low. "We're trying to co-opt the broadcasters' position with scripted shows, particularly The WB [Television Network]," he added.
On June 26, MTV debuts half-hour animated show Spy Groove. On Aug. 15, 2gether: the series premieres, while the drama Live Through This debuts Aug. 9.
Starting June 18, Comedy will create a fifth night of original programming when it adds the new series Strip Mall there. That same week, Comedy will also premiere The League of Gentlemen and Don't Forget Your Toothbrush.
Hilary said Comedy is looking at other options besides summer for premiering its original series. For example, it will debut BattleBots in either November or December.
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