Fall Is Now Prime Time for Cable

Broadcast faces stiffer competition for original-programming success
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As if the broadcast networks don't have enough problems in primetime right now, another one is surfacing this fall: Their own cable cousins are coming after them.

“We're very comfortable now about invading what was once a traditional broadcast network space, because we think we've got the goods,” says Jeff Wachtel, executive VP of original programming at NBC Universal's USA Network, basic cable's top-rated network.

Last week, TNT's new Steven Bochco drama, Raising the Bar, became the most-watched-rated premiere in ad-supported cable history with 7.7 million viewers. And that Raising the Bar was launched in September, albeit prior to the main broadcast premiere week of Sept. 22, shows that cable is coming out of its summer stronghold and attacking the fall.

USA was a pioneer in cable's counterprogramming strategy, launching shows in the summer and on Friday nights. But now, it is gunning for the fall. The network held Starter Wife for Oct. 10 and will debut new episodes of prize possession Law & Order: Criminal Intent in November.

“We've moved our programming from purely being in the summer into the winter, and now the next step is going to be into the fall,” Wachtel adds.

To give Raising the Bar a fighting chance, TNT gave it a hit lead-in, the Kyra Sedgwick drama The Closer, which also ranks as basic cable's top-rated show, averaging more than 7 million viewers an episode. The network will premiere the Timothy Hutton sci-fi drama Leverage in December.

“We're very realistic about how fierce the competition is once you get into September and beyond,” explains Michael Wright, senior VP at Turner Entertainment Networks. “The best marketing for a show is the lead-in. You get people to sample the first one, and they stick with it through the second and third [episodes]. At that point, you've hopefully got enough people to come and sample it that you've built up a head of steam when you run into that fiercer competition.”

FX was among the first basic cable networks to go scripted in the fall with the second season of Nip/Tuck in 2004. Last week, the network debuted the final season of The Shield along with new drama Sons of Anarchy. The network will debut the third season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia on Sept. 18, and debut new comedy Testees with a Sunny lead-in on Oct. 9.

And while many cable series do not reach the broadcast threshold for ratings success, buzz is on cable's side. “I think the challenge for broadcast networks is it's getting more and more difficult to be able to launch a whole plate of shows at the same time,” says JoAnn Alfano, who last week was named president of entertainment at Lifetime Networks after a long career in development at NBC. “You really have to break down your assets and figure out what you're going to promote and how many dollars you're going to allocate. Once upon a time, it wasn't so difficult.”

In October, Lifetime will bow its first scripted comedy in a decade with Rita Rocks.

“Nobody is laying down in the summer anymore, and no one is laying down in the fall,” Alfano adds. “I think everybody is going to do year-round programming.”

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