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What's so original about originals?

It's upfront season, so ad agencies are peppered by a swarm of cable networks trying to get a slice—sometimes just a crumb—of the $8 billion or so that buyers should commit by August. (You know ad buyers are being overwhelmed when TechTV—which gets a 0.1 or so Nielsen rating—starts scheduling upfront pitches.)

Sitting through many of these presentations, we were bemused by how aggressively cable networks position their original productions as unique initiatives.

Yes, it was impressive when HBO started mixing its own movies in with theatricals and when USA and the Turner nets began trying their own series and original movies.

But we're more than two decades into the development of the cable-network business, and some of the biggest networks aren't doing what their broadcast rivals do every day: putting fresh product on the air. Two weeks ago, the broadcast networks announced their new fall-season schedules, which include 45 new series. No one thinks to call that "original programming."

When reality show Combat Missions
ended recently, USA Network had no original series in prime time (two make-or-break series are coming in June). TNT has one whole series, Witchblade
, on the schedule. TBS has Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Everyone has cut back on movie-production slates, but players like TNT still bray about how King of Texas
is part "of a rich tradition of presenting Original Westerns."

That's 30 years after ABC came up with the Movie of the Week.

Lifetime is more consistent with originals (and brags a bit less), and, of course, smaller networks like Food Network, HGTV and TLC put on tons of originals—though, at $25,000 to $100,000 per episode, they're cheaper shows than scripted dramas.

Of course, there's the question of how big a contribution originals make anyway. Pat Robertson generated a whole lot more cash flow running Bonanza
on the old Family Channel ($156 million in annual profit) than Haim Saban did loading it with original programming as Fox Family. In fact, new owner Disney just wrote off $463 million of Saban's old programming ideas.

So if Robertson could make tons of money on Bonanza
reruns, how big an effort should Disney make with originals for ABC Family?