The highest-rated show on television last fall was on a network that, just eight years ago, had never aired original-series programming. AMC’s The Walking Dead averaged a 9.6 Nielsen live-plus-seven rating among adults 18-49 in the fourth quarter of 2013. Last fall’s highest rated broadcast series, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, averaged a 7.6—21% less than The Walking Dead, which ended 2013-14 as the No. 1 show on television for the second straight season.
“I don’t think the 18-49 viewers distinguish between cable and broadcast the way they used to,” said AMC president Charlie Collier.
The Walking Dead is proof. But when it comes to fall, broadcasters still have more heavy artillery than cable networks. Besides The Walking Dead, only two other cable shows—FX’s American Horror Story: Coven (4.1) and Sons of Anarchy (4.0)—outperformed the 10th highest rated scripted broadcast series, CBS’ Criminal Minds (3.9) last fall.
But with the season now underway, cable networks will attempt to launch several new scripted series and miniseries. For ad-supported networks such as Bravo and MTV, the pressures are different than for pay cablers such as HBO, Showtime and Starz. But all will face a massive array of offerings from broadcasters for whom fall is still the most important time of year.
Happyland, MTV, Sept. 30
Susanne Daniels took over as programming president of MTV in 2012, inheriting scripted series Teen Wolf and Awkward. She has since added Faking It and Finding Carter, both renewed this summer for second seasons. Happyland will join their ranks at the end of this month. The teen comedy, set in a theme park, was given a series order in October.
“The initial thrust behind comedy development was ‘How do we keep and grow the Awkward fans?’” Daniels says, describing that show, which will end in 2015, as having a strong base with teen girls.
Awkward and Faking It will return together Sept. 23, with Happyland joining them in a Tuesday-night programming block when it premieres a week later. Though Happyland will have support from the returning shows, it will become the only current MTV scripted series to have premiered in the fall.
Daniels says she no longer concerns herself with programming around the broadcast networks. “I did when I was at Lifetime,” where she served as programming president from 2005-08, she says, but adds she began to move away from that approach when Lifetime premiered four original movies during February sweeps. “We ended up going for it, and we did extremely well, and we didn’t shy away from broadcast networks at all. So even then I think this trend was starting to change.”
Survivor’s Remorse, Starz, Oct. 4
The Missing, Starz, Nov. 15
In June, Starz premiered Power, a crime drama produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson with an African-American lead in Omari Hardwick. In August, the network debuted Outlander, based on a best-selling series of historical-fantasy romance novels. “We’ve talked about how we think there are audiences in the premium spaces that are underserved,” says Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. If successful, Survivor’s Remorse and The Missing represent efforts by the network to attract African- Americans and women.
Survivor’s Remorse, a comedy set in the world of professional basketball, counts among its producers LeBron James, Tom Werner and Mike O’Malley. The James connection is already being worked into the strategy to market the show. The four-time NBA MVP appeared with Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel at a screening of the pilot in Cleveland this month, and the series will premiere fewer than four weeks before the NBA season tips off Oct. 28.
BBC coproduction The Missing follows a parent investigating the disappearance of a child. Albrecht ran scripts for the miniseries by several Starz female executives. “They all said, ‘This is so painful to read, and yet I have to know what happens.’”
Albrecht admits that fall is an especially competitive time, especially for a network in 22 million homes— roughly a quarter the number that widely distributed, ad-supported networks are in. But with broadcasters now funneling original programming in the summer, “it’s competitive year-round now,” he says.
The Affair, Showtime, Oct. 12
“There was a time here, not too long ago, where we would never premiere a show in the fall,” says Gary Levine, executive VP of original programming for Showtime. “Summer was sort of cable’s playground, because the networks put out the gone-fishing sign.”
For Showtime, that changed with Dexter. The drama premiered in October, 2006 and went on to earn 25 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and four wins in its eight seasons. Homeland, the first Showtime series to win the Emmy for outstanding drama series, launched in October, 2011, with Dexter as its lead-in.
Now Homeland serves as the network’s launching pad. Last fall, Showtime used it as a lead-in for Masters of Sex, which was renewed and moved to summer for its second season. The network will try to repeat that trick by premiering The Affair, a relationship drama from creator Sarah Treem, in the post-Homeland time period.
Olive Kitteridge, HBO, Nov. 2
The Comeback, HBO, Nov. 9
“We spend very little thought or energy looking at what other networks are doing on a Sunday night,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. Without having to worry about advertisers, HBO, like other subscription services is free to value delayed and digital viewing as equal to live viewing. So the challenge in fall, according to Lombardo, is not ratings-related.
“It’s about marketing,” he says. “The fall is a tough time to get a catch. It doesn’t matter what night, there’s a plethora of new shows.”
HBO will premiere Olive Kitteridge, a four-part, two-night naturalistic drama starring Frances McDormand, Nov. 2. “No one makes Olive Kitteridge a ratings juggernaut,” Lombardo says. Rather than judge it by audience, Lombardo will measure the miniseries’ success by engagement. “Ultimately the number of people who watch it is less important than [whether] people watch it both nights.”
A week later, HBO will premiere a sort-of-new series—the second season of Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s The Comeback, whose first and only season aired in 2005. Season 2 will debut along with returning series The Newsroom and Getting On Nov. 9. Lombardo believes the original Comeback about a TV actress, who allows herself to be the subject of a reality television series, was ahead of its time.
“We didn’t do this thinking it would sweep Sunday nights and this is our answer to Sunday Night Football, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it found a little bit bigger audience than it did when it premiered 9, 10 years ago,” Lombardo says.
Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, Bravo, Dec. 2
Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, from writer and producer Marti Noxon, is Bravo’s first scripted series. Network executives had been discussing the leap to scripted “at least two or three years,” according to Jerry Leo, executive VP, program strategy and production for Bravo.
“We’ve been really studying this for quite a while,” Leo says. Girlfriend’s Guide is meant to appeal to the network’s core upscale, female audience. The show’s lead, Leo adds, “is a very multi-dimensional character, like the best of many of the people that we feature on our unscripted shows.” Moving into scripted allows Bravo to do things “that we couldn’t do in an unscripted show.”
Though the other networks, cable and broadcast, will still be pumping out new episodes of shows they premiered earlier in the fall when Girlfriend’s Guide premieres Dec. 2, the date is key for the show’s launch plan. “I have the holiday to help grow it as well. Lots of encores and marathons,” Leo says.
That’s a strategy that has long worked in cable on the unscripted side. Bravo premiered Project Runway, for example, on Dec. 1, 2004.
“They work on a level that they’re never going to be a Walking Dead,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, History senior VP of programming and development, of two of her unscripted series—the returning The Curse of Oak Island and new Search for the Lost Giants. “But I think that the fact that it’s true and real, not a game, not sports, they offer something different.”
Cable has excelled at delivering a high volume of original unscripted programming year-round. Among this fall’s new and returning highlights:
Oct. 2: Dead Again (new), A&E
Oct. 3: On the Menu (new), TNT
Oct. 10:Say Yes to the Dress, TLC
Oct. 14: Chrisley Knows Best, USA
Oct. 17:Gold Rush, Discovery
Oct. 29: Rival Survival (new), Discovery
Nov. 4: The Curse of Oak Island, History; Search for the Lost Giants (new), History