It's tough to be original. USA Network was so pleased with freshman drama The Dead Zone last summer that it promoted the show to a winter run for its second season. After a strong debut in January, though, Sunday nights in February proved far more competitive than Dead Zone's prior summer slot, and the show's numbers faded.
After initial bliss with freshman hits like Dead Zone
and USA Network's other drama, Monk, and FX's The Shield, cable channels are rediscovering how tough a business original programming can be.
If he could do it again, says USA programming chief Jeff Wachtel, he would have scheduled Dead Zone
for March. "It's tough for us to compete with [broadcast-]network marketing machines that kick in during sweeps."
Cable may talk about its increasingly competitive position with broadcast networks, but no cable channel dares debut an original in September or October. And broadcasters may be scheduling more reality than ever, but they still boast bigger programming kitties and wield more promotion and marketing muscle. Not to mention being top-of-mind for many viewers.
Still, a standout series is like gold, cable programmers like to say, because it brands a channel and lures new viewers. And many are willing to pony up around $1.5 million per episode in the effort.
"For the vast chunk of audience, FX is not a habit; it's a network they stumble across," acknowledges FX Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. "We hope we can form a little habit with people with our originals."
This summer, the field of cable nets striving to become a habit will be increasingly crowded.
Lifetime, boasting two well-rated originals in The Division
and Strong Medicine, plans to debut two more series in August. A&E, after canceling highbrow 100 Centre Street
and Nero Wolfe, plans spy drama MI5
Even ESPN is getting into the act, with its first drama series, Playmakers,
about life on a pro football team, set for August.
These and other cable nets agree that summer is the time to bring out their best originals. Sure, household viewing levels are generally lower then, but the broadcasters have, until recently, virtually closed up shop during the summer.
Reality has been hot on broadcast networks the past few summers, including last year's sizzling introduction of American Idol, and new dramatic series are rare. So cable nets have seized on the opportunity to launch their shows. When the broadcasters are quiet, a cable net's message has a better shot of breaking through.
TNT, which canceled its last original drama Witchblade
last year, now seeks to get back into the original-drama game in summer 2004. Turner Entertainment President Mark Lazarus says TNT doesn't need
an original drama, but, "If we can create something we can't buy that adds value to [viewers, advertisers and MSOs], we will."
FX has learned that summer is perhaps the most hospitable to new shows. After a strong debut last summer, The Shield
slugged it out with broadcasters in the winter for season two. The cop drama averaged a 2.8 rating, the same as its inaugural season. And, although that is triple FX's usual prime time marks, some thought The Shield
would grow, particularly after star Michael Chiklis earned Emmy and Golden Globe
A summer run probably would have produced bigger ratings, FX's Reilly concedes. But, he says, "we want the year to have consistency. You can get bottle-necked in the summer."
FX's current series, dark comedy Lucky,
has struggled since its April debut. But its third original series, Nip/Tuck, about two Miami plastic surgeons, will arrive this summer.
And plenty more cable originals will arrive in the sunny season.
USA hopes to revive Dead Zone
with a six-episode mini-season beginning July 6. Its prized Monk
returns June 20, and a new Western drama Peacemakers
arrives July 30.
Lifetime is choosing from four promising pilots, all featuring a slightly lighter tone than the net's typical fare. These are the first shows from Entertainment President Barbara Fisher, who says she looked for programs that were different but still "on-brand. We're trying to anticipate that the viewer may be looking for something new."
Lifetime makes about 22 episodes of its shows, whereas other cable nets stick to 13-16. The extra episodes keep Lifetime stocked with new shows for more of the year, Fisher explains, and also accelerate a possible syndication run.
Nets like USA and FX, though, favor shorter orders because it breaks the conventions of the broadcast-TV model and lets them make more shows.
This summer will be a busy time for the pay services as well. HBO's hit Sex & the City
returns for its final summer run with 12 new episodes. (Eight more arrive in January 2004 to close out the series.) New drama Carnivale, following a traveling circus through Oklahoma in the 1930s, bows in September.
Showtime, with its new focus on series over movies, will debut two dramas this summer: Out of Order, about the complexities of modern marriage, and Dead Like Me,
a quirky look at a young woman's afterlife.
"We're trying to explore subject matter and relationships other networks don't or can't," said Gary Levine, executive vice president of original programming. "We don't have to do a police, doctor, lawyer or PI show," he added, citing the consistently popular genres for broadcast dramas.
Showtime is among cable nets opting to make shows in Canada to keep costs down. Both USA's Dead Zone
and Peacemakers are shot in Canada, as was the first season of Monk.
With MI5, A&E defrays some costs by co-producing the 16-episode show with the BBC.
After last summer's success, though, cable programmers are bracing for a reality check. "The ratio of successful shows on broadcast networks is one in seven or one in eight," said USA's Wachtel. Cable, he added, was three for three last summer.