Tuesday's summer solstice officially starts the season, but cable is already steaming with record-breaking ratings for the debuts of its original programming.
In what has become a rite of summer, after sweeps end, the broadcast networks pad their schedules with low-brow reality. Then cable steps up to counter-program. This season's earliest entrants—new series and returning shows alike—are often besting broadcast ratings. The June 13 premiere of TNT's crime drama, The Closer, was the highest-rated showing ever for a basic-cable original scripted series, notching a 4.8 household rating; it also outperformed the premieres of summer broadcast shows like Fox's The Inside and ABC's The Scholar in total viewers, with 7.03 million.
Returning shows on other cable networks continue to perform as well. Last week, The 4400's season-two second episode drew 4.38 million total viewers, and The Dead Zone's fourth-season premiere attracted 3.45 million. Lifetime's Strong Medicine, the longest-running basic-cable original series, logged 2.9 million viewers for its sixth-season premiere, and FX's The Shield finished its fourth season with 3.2 million viewers.
In addition to attracting viewers, original hits solidify branding, garner press and critical acclaim, and create new product-placement and sponsorship opportunities. Each successful show also improves cable shows' yet-unproven backend prospects for syndication and foreign sales.
Cost is the biggest concern for cable networks looking to score a hit. Cable networks usually have smaller budgets for originals than broadcast networks do, so the number of shows and their production costs must be kept lower. That means selectively greenlighting pilots: three instead of 30, for instance; sometimes using those that don't go to series as one-off movies; and often using cross-promotion on parent companies' broadcast networks.
“Our philosophy is fewer, bigger, better,” says Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and Sci Fi. “We grew up without money, so when we started getting into the ballgame with originals, we became extremely effective developers and producers.”
Cable series' producers save by avoiding cost overruns from numerous script rewrites and multiple shoots. Says Kevin Beggs, programming/production president of boutique studio Lions Gate Television, “You might not need that seventh guest star.”
His company is producing four of cable's summer shows, including USA's Dead Zone and Lifetime's Missing.
Lions Gate is also behind Wildfire, ABC Family's first-ever original drama, which debuts June 20. Beggs kept production costs low on the ranch-based show by casting unknown actors and shooting in Albuquerque, N.M. (The state offers producers tax incentives.)
With ratings growth from acquired Gilmore Girls and Smallville, ABC Family is using Wildfire and the network's second original series, July's Beautiful People, to further establish itself as destination for modern 18- to 34-year-olds, says President Paul Lee. Support from ABC and Disney has helped ABC Family launch one of its priciest and most comprehensive marketing campaigns ever to promote Wildfire—including print ads, movie-theater and shopping-mall promos, and prime time ads on ABC.
The Turner networks have been similarly aggressive with marketing their originals. TNT spent $50 million to market Into the West, its current Steven Spielberg/DreamWorks Television limited series. (Turner reports that the 12-hour drama cost another $50 million to produce.)
“Our plan's starting to come to fruition,” says Steve Koonin, executive VP/COO of TNT and TBS. “We're thrilled because we've beaten lots and lots of broadcast shows. This is a great thing for us.”