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Summertime, cable's ratings are easy

The cable industry has gotten used to having free rein on summer programming. And while the industry is buzzing about broadcast networks' increased summer awareness, cable has no intentions of backing down.

The cable industry's optimism is buoyed by last summer's ratings growth. In third quarter 2000 (June 6 to Oct. 1), ad-supported cable viewership increased 5% in prime time, to 25.2 million homes, according to Turner Entertainment Network's analysis of Nielsen data.

"The difference between summer and winter viewing levels has been shrinking for years," said Tim Brooks, Lifetime's research chief. "Cable viewing actually goes up, and the only part of the business that goes down is broadcast networks. It's a real time of opportunity for cable."

The ad-supported cable networks back up their plans with some of their heaviest promotion of the year. "Promotion tends to go farther in the summer because you can put the same amount of money in for July and August and buy more media than you can in March," said John Ford, president of Discovery Networks content group. "The prices go down, and there isn't as much noise in the market."

Many cable networks plan to roll out new programming this month, rather than in July and August, as they've done in years past. The Discovery Channel's biggest stunt will be its two-hour special When Dinosaurs Roamed America on July 15, three days before the movie Jurassic Park III appears in theaters. The special is being heavily cross-promoted with the Universal Pictures production. Discovery expects its ratings to increase 30% to 40% during its other two programming stunts: Shark Week and Croc Week

For the third straight summer, TBS will premiere one of its biggest original movies in the summer, The Triangle, airing on Aug. 12. "This is our chance to shoot over the moon," said Bill Cox, senior vice president of programming. "We made sure it was in a key, off-ratings period in the summer when we could take advantage of it."

Another new strategy for TBS: During the May sweeps, TBS showed repeats of Ripley's Believe It or Not! and kept fresh episodes for July when there would be less competition for ratings.

Sister network TNT is using the summer to break out of the general-entertainment clutter and redefine itself as a drama network. On Tuesday nights, recently acquired Law and Order reruns will sandwich the highly publicized new series Witchblade, based on an original movie from last summer, which earned a 4.5 rating in about 3.5 million households.

"The networks' plans affect how we're going to do our marketing, because we know the environment will be more cluttered," said Scot Saffron, TNT's senior vice president of marketing. "The bar is raised in how active we need to be in getting our message out." TNT expects big ratings from its NASCAR coverage, which begins in July. But the network scrapped plans to air two original shows, Breaking News and a second season of the Wall Street drama Bull.

As it did last summer, Lifetime is staggering its premieres throughout the summer to draw more attention to each production. Saturday nights will focus on reality programming, including Women Docs and Beyond Chance, while Sunday nights will center on dramas.

And, in an odd way, broadcast TV's revved-up summer plans may help E! Entertainment's own plans. "That the networks are in production can be a boon for us since we do programming about the TV biz," said E! President Mindy Herman. "We're on the set of Weakest Link and Temptation Island. We look at it as a positive."