It's summer, when cable likes to roll out fresh episodes of its hit shows. Monk, Newlyweds
are leading the audience charge. Three weeks into June, cable claims 57% of TV viewership, compared to 35% for broadcast, reports Nielsen. The margin is wider than this time last year, when cable claimed 53% of the audience.
New shows are responsible for the jump.
The months between Memorial Day and Labor Day—when broadcast traditionally relied on reruns—has been a bonanza for cable. "Audience favorites are setting the stage," says Tim Brooks, Lifetime executive vice president of research. Leading the pack is USA Network's quirky detective drama Monk. The show, which won a Golden Globe and Emmy for star Tony Shalhoub, stormed into summer June 18 collecting 5.5 million viewers.
Critical darling Nip/Tuck
attracted 3.8 million viewers for its sophomore season premiere June 22. MTV's Newlyweds
is still going strong in season three, with a June 16 opening that nabbed 3.1 million viewers. MTV also paired its newest reality show, The Ashlee Simpson Show,
starring Jessica Simpson's kid sister Ashlee, with Newlyweds,
nabbed 2.6 million viewers—a very promising debut.
Across cable, networks are hoping to get similar traction.
TBS is enjoying big ratings for off-nets of Sex and The City. A sanitized version of the HBO hit debuted June 14 with 4 million viewers, and four other episodes collected more than 3 million viewers. Animation is turning heads, too. Fatherhood,
a new Nick at Nite animated series based on Bill Cosby's book, grabbed 2.8 million viewers for its second episode June 22—a 74% increase over the premiere. On the Disney Channel, Phil of the Future
is helping viewers get over Lizzie McGuire. The new live-action comedy about a futuristic teen stuck in the present, got off to a promising start June 18, attracting 2.9 million viewers.
But not every cable show has worked.
Despite heavy promotion, Bravo's reality show Blowout, set in a tony Beverly Hills hair salon, has averaged 658,000 since its June 8 debut. E!'s new stunt re-creation show Scream Play, from the creators of Fear Factor, got off to a dismal start June 13 with 450,000 viewers. Extreme Dodgeball,
a sports spoof on Game Show Network, missed its target June 15, mustering just 227,000 viewers.
No new show is rocking cable like Bravo's 2003 sensation Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
did last summer. (In its second summer, Queer Eye
has cooled a bit but still pulls in nearly 2 million viewers, four times Bravo's prime time average.)
Still, summer has just begun, and there are more programs coming. FX kicks off Rescue Me, a new drama starring Denis Leary as a New York City firefighter, July 21. (The drama will anchor a new second night of originals for FX.)
HBO will unveil its latest comedy series Entourage, about a Hollywood star and his buddies from back home in Queens, July 18. For sci-fi fanatics, Sci Fi Channel is spinning off Stargate SG-1
into a new series, Stargate Atlantis, which lands July 16. TNT's limited counterterrorism drama The Grid
kicks off with a two-hour premiere three nights later.
Of course, broadcast networks took note.
They've been busy in recent years improving their summer slates with reality shows and the occasional drama. This summer, Fox and NBC are particularly active. (See "Seasonal Pleasures" story, page 8.)
And the strategy, in part, has worked.
True, there have been only a handful of breakout hits, but they are noteworthy, such as Fox's debut of The O.C.
last summer and reality sensations Survivor, American Idol,
and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, all of which launched as summer series. But it's enough to rejigger broadcasters' long-term strategies and worry cable.
"I am deeply concerned about it," says Oxygen programming chief Debby Becee. "We will look at whether we want to do this again next summer." For now, she can rest easy.
These days, broadcasters are taking a lesson from cable's playbook. Brooks suggests picking just one or two nights in the summer and loading them with fresh series. It's better "than claiming you're going to fill the whole pool when all you have are two thimbles of water."