Cable Nets Draw Summer Crowds

Original Programming Achieves Ratings That Rival Broadcast

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With broadcast prime-time ratings down across the board for the 2006-2007 TV season, cable networks have aggressively moved this summer to prove they too can deliver mass reach.
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Lifetime's 'Army Wives' is one of cable's top-rated shows this summer, drawing an audience that would give broadcast shows a run for their ad dollars. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

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Broadcast summer offerings have consisted mainly of so-so reality shows and talent contests, which has given original cable programming such as Lifetime's "Army Wives" and TBS's "House of Payne" the chance to achieve network-best ratings.

Best programs win
"We have seen that whoever puts on the best programs wins," said Shari-Anne Brill, who studies programming for Aegis Group's Carat USA. "It depends on what night of the week they air [the shows.]"

Ms. Brill suggested Saturday night in the fall or during the first and second quarters as a potential launching pad for new cable programming, as the broadcast networks have treated it as a dumping ground for repeats and retreads of existing shows. "The networks have abandoned them. In the meantime, the audience has discovered DVDs and DVR playback. But the viewers are there."

Some cable networks had already started to push for bigger audiences. Last October, ESPN averaged a record-breaking 8.5 million viewers for the first four weeks of its "Monday Night Football," while TNT's "The Closer" set a record this past season for the highest-rated original drama on cable with an average 6.6 million viewers. When stacked against the similarly themed "Crossing Jordan" on NBC, which attracted an average 7.9 million last season, and the 12 million that regularly tune in to CBS's "Cold Case," those numbers still hold up.

Fourth quarter's 'mixed bag'
With more destination programming comes more ad dollars -- if the cable networks can continue to deliver. One major buyer called cable's fourth quarter a "mixed bag" when it comes to big reach for original programming. But December has become a priority for cable's holiday-themed movies and specials. ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" was cited by the buyer as a must for booking inventory, and the Turner networks will have special super-sizes episodes of "The Closer" and "House of Payne" tied to the holiday this year.

With top-tier shows such as FX's "Nip/Tuck" and Bravo's "Project Runway" launching their new seasons in the fourth quarter, cable is starting to program on more of a year-round basis. But the shift from program ratings to commercial ratings, which will take effect in the fall, left less fourth-quarter inventory available than in previous years, meaning end-of-year scatter could be pretty costly. The buyer said some of the broadcast networks were conservative in their audience estimates for the quarter as a result. Cable could see some 11th-hour money move over from broadcast at the end of August as the fate of "hold-to-order" dollars is determined.

"It just depends on if the money people spent was all real or not," the buyer said.

Turner's hits rival broadcast
The money spent on cable marketing, however, already seems to have paid off. Jeff Gregor, chief marketing officer for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies, hit a grand slam this summer with strong premieres of new TNT dramas "Saving Grace" and "Heartland" and TBS comedies "House of Payne" and "The Bill Engvall Show." The Turner entertainment networks have the household carriage and proven reach to put them on the same level as the Big Four networks in some instances, but their blockbuster summer shows still will wrap up in mid-September, just as the broadcast season kicks off.

Not that Mr. Gregor would put it in those terms. "Concluding by the end of September is the right business opportunity," he said. Instead, he will continue to focus his marketing efforts on the end-of-year launches of "Frank TV" and the second season of "10 Items or Less."

NBC Universal's USA, which also celebrated its best summer ever with successes such as its "Starter Wife" miniseries with Debra Messing and new seasons of "Monk" and "Psych," has the added benefit of a familiar broadcast franchise in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." The full seventh season of the drama, formerly on sibling NBC, will air all-new episodes on the cable network before repeats air on NBC later in the week -- quite possibly in the no-man's-land known as Saturday night.

The challenge for Chris McCumber, USA's senior VP-marketing and brand strategy, however, will be marketing a show -- and franchise -- that viewers can catch on virtually any other network. "It's the seventh season, so we don't have to sell the show, we just have to differentiate it from all the other 'Law & Orders,'" he said.
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