Ratings Bump from the Picket Line?

Some cable networks are counter-programming in the hope strike fallout will lure viewers and drive revenue

Reality-heavy cable networks are facing a unique marketing challenge. Many are quietly anticipating a ratings bump due to the writers' strike. Some executives even admit to counter-programming new series against broadcast networks' rerun-schedule weak spots.

But nearly all of them are reluctant to admit some of their efforts on the record, for fear of appearing to take sides.

“Some have made the point that nonfiction programmers stand to gain from the strike, however that's not how Discovery wants to win,” says a company spokesperson. “We'll continue to focus on creating premier non-fiction programming and hope our friends in the creative community on both sides of the issue will soon find common ground.”

Behind the scenes, however, cable networks heavy on unscripted fare are admittedly keeping a close eye on the strike's progression, as they stand to profit handily.

Some cable networks are even going so far as to tweak their marketing messaging to alert viewers that their content is fresh while others' (broadcast late-night shows, for example) is stale. Their writers not in the WGA, they are able to continue churning out new episodes while networks reliant on scripted series face programming shifts—or their own reality shows—should the strike drag on for months.

With a glance back to losses during the 22-week-long strike in 1988, some experts are predicting a 9% drop in the broadcast networks' primetime viewing. Broadcast could lose about 5% in viewing by adults 18-49 during January and February, 8% in March, 12% in April, and 13% in May, according to media buying company Magna Global—an average of about 9% over those months.

Improving A Network's Reach

“We've certainly been watching what's going on with the strike with interest and we assume if it goes on a long time and networks are in reruns, we'll have a ratings pickup,” says HGTV President Jim Samples. “I hope what it allows us to do, to the extent that we get a ratings boost, is improve our reach.”

Many networks are devising creative ways to let viewers know that while scripted broadcast series may go into reruns, fresh content will still be available on cable. What they're not doing, generally, is mentioning the word “strike,” preferring instead to shout even louder than usual about new episodes. E!, for example, has started running messaging saying that while other late-night programming is disrupted, viewers can count on new episodes of the network's own late-night show Chelsea Lately.

“We've had terrific meetings about how far to go,” jokes Ted Harbert, CEO of E! parent company, Comcast Entertainment Group. He said he expects E! to see a bump in viewing if the strike drags on through the holiday season. “We may do things like 'super new' and 'incredibly amazingly super new,' because we all overuse 'new.' It's how far I can get my tongue into my cheek. How much more can you put big stamps on your promos?”

Food Network hopes to see a bump with its January/February premieres, the pop culture food history show Snack Attack and the gourmand docu-series Heavyweights. The network plans to push new content during the strike, says Food Senior VP of Marketing and Creative Services, Michael Smith. Such messaging could push shows that are “fresh from the oven,” rather than explicitly mentioning others' “stale” reruns.

“It's always better to take the high road, especially with our brand, which is a friendly happy place,” he says. “I think viewers can figure out what we're talking about.”

Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim block went so far as to mention the strike in on-air messaging, responding to viewer e-mails about whether it would affect programming (the answer was “no”) in a short bumper. But a network spokesperson points out that such communications were par for the course for the young male-skewing block and not meant to antagonize the WGA.

“That's always been sort of their milieu as far as directly talking to that audience,” he said.

In a different boat are cable networks such as USA, TNT and FX, which have built successful business models—and brands—around quality scripted series. Like the broadcast networks, they are safe for the present, having banked some new episodes. But production of shows for summer, the season when most cable networks premiere marquee scripted fare, could be delayed should the strike drag.

Episodes: Limited Supply

Also at stake is the image these networks have created for themselves in the minds of viewers and cable operators, thanks to these series. FX can continue programming one scripted original per week for now: The network has banked 14 episodes of Nip/Tuck, will finish a full 13-episode season of The Shield and has half-seasons (seven episodes each) of Dirt and The Riches.

Still, production of 22 episodes on the recently picked-up Rescue Me and 26 of Damages, as well as a new season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, if picked up, would be delayed at best. The issue then wouldn't be so much the lost dollars—its originals are more expensive to produce and market than the network makes back in ad revenue—but in losing them as brand-defining gems, says FX President and General Manager John Landgraf.

“My larger concern is that if the strike drags on it ultimately shifts more audiences toward sports and unscripted programming and games,” he says. “It could impinge on our ability to have an original programming brand.”

Working in favor of networks heavy on scripted shows is this other bit of history: Viewers are used to reruns in the winter months. During the past three TV seasons, December, January and March averaged 36% repeats, and February, despite the fact that it was a sweeps period, had 35%, according to Magna. While viewers aren't necessarily expecting to see new scripted episodes, patience still may wear thin. And unscripted-heavy cable networks are ready, continuing to promote fare that's incredibly amazingly super new.