While Big 4 go on summer vacation, cable goes to town with big projects

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While the big Four hibernate for summer-or at least take a take a cat nap, offering up sleepy summer fare-cable networks are firing up some of their most ambitious projects.

The past two weeks saw the premiere of TNT's six-part Stephen Spielberg-produced miniseries "Into the West" and its new Kyra Sedgewick-starring drama "The Closer," along with USA's second season premiere of "4400" and its fourth season of "The Dead Zone."

And while it's not new for cable networks to capitalize on broadcast's off season, the latest projects are bigger and expectations are higher.

`A MARKETING TOOL'

"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that these initiatives work," says Bob Flood, exec VP-national electronic media at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia. "They want to garner strong ratings but also when fourth quarter comes around they can look back and say [to advertisers] `look at the promotional campaigns that supported these initiatives'. . . They use that as a marketing tool as well."

Time Warner's TNT, for example, spent $50 million on the production of "Into the West" and another $50 million promoting it. Despite lukewarm critical reviews, it premiered with a 4.0 household rating and almost 6.5 million viewers. In the 18-to-49 demographic, it snagged 1.8 million viewers.

USA premiered the second season of its sci-fi drama "4400" the week earlier to the tune of 3.3 household rating and 5.3 million viewers. In 18-49s, it snared a 2.0 rating. The second episode went head to head with "Into the West" and came away with a 2.5 household rating and another 2.0 rating in 18-49.

"The competition's as stiff as it's ever been," says Chris McCumber, senior VP-marketing and brand strategy at NBC Universal's USA Network.

Marketing-wise USA treated the second season of "4400" like a first-season launch. It aired three-minute mini-productions at Regal Cinemas before the "Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith" and other younger-skewing summer flicks. "We called it a character exploration hyper-trailer," McCumber says.

Disney's ABC Family, though smaller than USA and TNT, is making its most expensive foray into original programming as well, with its first scripted dramas, "Wildfire" and "Beautiful People." The grassroots marketing efforts are mostly centered on New York, Chicago and Los Angeles: scattering hay bales around Manhattan and driving a horse trailer cross country to promote "Wildfire," which takes place on a ranch, and distributed free slippers at spas around New York to promote "Beautiful People."

Ultimately, the goal of these investment programs is to create a halo effect around the rest of the summer programming for both viewers and advertisers, who will dish up greater portions of less compelling fare to get a slice of the hottest summer show.

TNT used the weekend miniseries to promote the Monday night premiere of "The Closer" and ended up with a 4.8 household rating for the show. "We gave them the sample of `The Closer' and it paid off," says Steve Koonin, exec VP-chief operating officer for TNT and TBS.

And while Koonin is happy with the ratings, he's targeting another audience as well: Hollywood.

"We want to set an environment for the creative community where if they bring something to us they know we'll create a successful environment," Koonin says. "We want to be a place where the best creative directors, producers and writers can do business knowing we're going to treat their ideas better than anyone."

Strategy

Cable networks can use strong ratings in the summer months as a selling point when they talk to advertisers later in the year

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