Curiosity enticed 4 million viewers to watch the August premiere of The Anna Nicole Show on E! Entertainment Television. The real Anna Nicole promptly drove many away. No matter, say E! execs: By network standards, the show is a dynamo. Since its first few weeks, Anna Nicole has cooled considerably and draws an average of just 1.5 million viewers—which is still three times higher than E!'s usual prime time audience.
"We don't have anything else on the network like it," Executive VP of Programming Mark Sonneberg said of Anna Nicole. "This is something that has caught people's attention, good and bad."
Cable executives covet the buzz that Anna Nicole
and other talked-about cable shows attract. A hit brings in fresh eyeballs and new ad dollars. And, suddenly, for the first time in cable's history, there is a sufficient number of cable programs all over the schedule that give cable the right to do a little bragging.
"There's something to be said for a ratings hit, but, in cable right now, there are pervasive, water-cooler hits," said Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcomm Media Entertainment.
Indeed, this as close as cable has come to its own golden age of programming.
USA Network President Doug Herzog used to say that media buyers would flinch at the term "original programming." Recent hits like The Osbournes, The Shield
and Monk, he contends, have changed that. "We won't see much cringing anymore."
Most networks get giddy over one hit. Some—notably USA, MTV, Nickelodeon—blissfully juggle a few hits, but only HBO can boast a full plate year round. And its model won't work for all: Its programmers go to work with bigger budgets, more creative freedom and no advertisers to please.
Over the next year, cable programmers face the difficult task for building on their recent successes. New scripted dramas that have won cable so much attention remain a costly gamble; some, like Witchblade
or 100 Centre Street, fail to catch on with audiences. And even successful series need to be nurtured into a long-term franchise.
Basic-cable programmers blame economics for the difficulty of launching and developing new hit shows. Cable nets can't take as many shots as the broadcast networks can, executives say, particularly when the tab for a high-quality scripted show runs well over $1 million per episode. Cable originals have to repeat endlessly to break even, and the money that producers used to get from international sales is getting harder to find.
USA and FX have stepped up their financial stake in original dramas. USA's
The Dead Zone
and FX's The Shield
all ring in around $1.5 million per episode.
The difficulty in producing cable hits is compounded by the way programming resources are allocated. Cable networks could make the economics work for more originals, but most just aren't ready to. In fact, with dual revenue streams, from advertising and subscriber fees, most cable networks are actually more profitable than broadcast networks (NBC being the exception).
Even so, most cable programming dollars go to theatrical movies—many of them mediocre box-office performers. TNT and TBS boast the best movie packages; neither currently airs an original scripted show.
Of course, it doesn't always take big money to turn out an original hit. At $90,000 an episode, TLC's Trading Spaces
often grabs ratings usually reserved for sports and original movies. MTV's The Osbournes, a bargain at $200,000 for the first season, was cable's biggest hit in recent years. And Anna Nicole
costs E! about $100,000 per show.
Both Trading Spaces
and The Osbournes
caught fire on word of mouth. In two years, Trading Spaces
has grown from a 0.4 rating in fringe to a monster 4.0 on recent Saturday nights. The Osbournes
kicked off last March with a 2.8 rating—perfectly impressive but nothing compared with the mammoth 5.6 it grabbed for one late-April outing.
Shows like these, which build an audience over time, are the envy of other cable nets. "Flashes in the pans happen often," said Turner Broadcasting's Chief Research Officer Jack Wakshlag, "but enduring hits are hard to find."
Several cable nets have found rating consistency in original dramas. The Shield, Dead Zone, Monk, and Lifetime's Strong Medicine
and The Division
maintained steady ratings throughout recent plays.
With a scripted show, writers can introduce new characters and story lines to hold viewers. Reality shows may not be as fortunate, explains Kris Magel, manager of national broadcast for Optimedia International. "Reality is a more volatile genre. Those shows cool off a lot faster."
The real value
Strong marks for one or two shows can boost Nielsen ratings a few tenths of a point, but Nielsen marks aren't the real value. Hits drive branding and exposure.
"Cable networks tend to be valued on overall brand perception of one or two marquee shows," explained David Grant, president of 20th Century Television, which produced The Shield.
means more than ratings to MTV, said President of Entertainment Brian Graden. "The Osbournes
translates into intangibles that you can't measure. Advertisers want us, artists want to work with us."
Those intangibles are so valuable that MTV is paying the Osbourne clan $5 million for U.S. rights to season two.
FX couldn't conjure up any marketing campaign that would deliver more awareness for The Shield
than star Michael Chiklis's winning an Emmy. The Emmy gives FX's controversial hit a rosy halo. "When [a show] becomes a hit, sex and violence becomes love and adventure," said Tom DeCabia, EVP for media buyer AdvanswersNY.
Broadcast networks have noticed the improved quality of cable product, too. ABC has enjoyed success with a repurposed Monk, and NBC signed up a limited replay of Court TV's Forensic Files.
Designed as summer placeholders for the broadcast nets, both shows draw far more viewers on broadcast than on cable. And the exposure has helped cable ratings and awareness.
On Court TV, Forensic Files' ratings are up 10%, and an August episode notched a network-high 1.8 rating. "Our little marketing experiment paid off," said Court TV chief Henry Schleiff.
As part of the eight-episode deal with NBC, Court TV received two 15-second promotional spots. "That had real economic value," Schleiff said. "Those would be very expensive spots."
Thanks to that success, cable networks are faced with a new problem: managing the success of returning hits.
"There have been very few long-running hour-long shows on cable," said Lifetime's head of research Tim Brooks. "The show has to keep evolving."
Cable's ability to build on its recent successes will be measured in January, when this year's hits begin to trickle back into prime time. The Shield
and Dead Zone
return in January; The Osbournes
and Anna Nicole,
in the spring; Monk, in the summer. Some non-scripted shows, like Forensic Files
and Trading Spaces, offer fresh episodes year round.
Cable generally relies on off-net shows and movies to drive ratings and can allow its originals to grow into hits, unlike broadcast, which has to fill up to seven nights with original fare and often will ax a middling show after a couple of episodes. Says DeCabia, "Cable nets have the luxury to hang in there with a show and support it as much as they can."