Nothing brings viewers to basic cable in summer like a drama series.
Just ask USA Network, which successfully launched "In Plain Sight" on June 1, drawing 5.3 million total viewers. It's the latest in a string of hours -- "Monk," "Psych" and "Burn Notice" -- that have made USA primetime's highest-rated cable network in key adult demos.
"We've been very lucky over the past number of years," NBC Universal's Bonnie Hammer says. "We do believe we have a really strong summer ahead of us, but you never know what others are coming out with."
These days, no basic cabler worth its salt goes without a summer-scheduled scripted drama, including TNT ("The Closer"), Lifetime ("Army Wives") and AMC's Golden Globe-winning "Mad Men." Monday brings "The Middleman" on ABC Family, followed in July by "The Cleaner" with Benjamin Bratt, A&E's first scripted foray in six years.
But don't be misled by cable's impressive track record: Dramas are costly and as risky as network shows (anyone remember last year's "Heartland" from TNT or "State of Mind" from Lifetime?). Keeping hits growing after their rookie season is just as difficult, a challenge AMC faces in July with the return of "Mad."
"It created a signature show for them," Horizon Media's Brad Adgate says. "And if a cable network not really known for putting out original series can do it, that just encourages other cable networks to do the same thing."
That mentality has led to a few rules for launching cable dramas:
Rule 1: Scheduling Even as broadcast networks move to year-round premieres, summer is still the time to launch on cable.
Last summer, ad-supported cable networks (most basic cablers with the exception of a few, like Disney Channel) beat the six broadcast networks by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 among adults 18-49, according to a Turner ratings analysis. This summer is on track to repeat.
"Based on the trends and data, my predictions would be for a record-high summer viewership to cable, a record-high summer in viewership on television and a record-low summer in viewership to broadcast," Turner Broadcasting's Jack Wakshlag says.
So far, Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" is performing solidly, but such new scripted series as CBS' "Swingtown" and NBC's "Fear Itself," as well as reality shows like ABC's "The Mole," have faltered.
On the other hand, "Army" and "Sight" and new episodes of USA's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" came out strong this month.
"Whoever puts on the best programs wins," Carat USA's Shari Anne Brill says. "And lately, it's been the ad-supported cable networks that put on the winning programming during the summer because it's more original scripted content, and quality scripted content trumps reality."
Unscripted series are still big everywhere, but cable networks are distinguishing themselves with more stylish, sometimes star-driven scripted programming. At the same time, broadcast has turned to more outlandish fare, with upcoming premieres including "The Greatest American Dog" (CBS) and "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" (ABC).
Meanwhile, the writers strike could also have a lingering effect on the summer. There could be viewer fatigue for shows like "Big Brother," a summertime series that CBS brought back months early because of the strike. It returns with its 10th installment July 13, less than three months after the finale of the previous cycle aired.
Disney Channel's Gary Marsh says summer launches are crucial to his network, but ratings are only one piece of the pie.
"We're not just competing in a ratings universe; we're competing for the share of mind of our audience," he says. "If you look at the things that people are talking about -- 'Hannah Montana,' 'High School Musical' and even now 'Camp Rock' -- we're winning the race in terms of share of mind."
Rule 2: Budgets Cable can produce new dramas for less money and maintain quality.
Basic cable spends upwards of 70% of broadcasters' budget -- about $2.5 million,
on average -- for an episode of a new drama series. While executives won't reveal their costs, AMC's Charlie Collier argues that he saves a lot of money by having a smaller development slate focused only on shows that fit the network's brand. For instance, "Mad," AMC's first scripted show, was shot on film.
"We wanted to be able to combine 'Mad Men' with our (theatrical) movies seamlessly," he says. "We don't have the layers and distractions that broadcast has before it hits the screen. We make sure the quality is on the screen."
At the same time, cable networks are commanding more money from advertisers. Those dollars and more manageable programming budgets are allowing cable nets to step up marketing campaigns, which is important for a show like "Mad."
Rule 3: Talent Big-name stars certainly don't hurt, but well-written, intriguing story lines and characters are necessary.
"Mad" proved that familiar faces aren't necessary to garner buzz, and series like "Burn Notice" showed they aren't required to bring in big numbers. But they sure can help generate initial interest, argues A&E's Bob DeBitetto, who says his team has regular discussions over the importance of casting a star.
"First and foremost, it's important to get a great actor who does the role justice," he says. "Having said that, there is no question that A-list actors can be an asset at least to the premiere. But at some point, the series has to stand on its own merits."
Rule 4: Branding A series must fit within the network's "identity."
The right kind of hit for a cable network does wonders for its branding efforts, which means execs can't just go chasing the hottest programming trends.
"I'm a big believer in branding, and if you build the right show, viewers will come," Lifetime's Susanne Daniels says.
Case in point: The subject matter of A&E's "The Cleaner" doesn't stray too far from another network series, the unscripted "Intervention."
"It's not entirely coincidental that we chose 'The Cleaner' as our first original drama," DeBitetto says. "I can't think of a show or world that better defines what we mean by 'real-life drama.' "
For now, cable's reign seems to be contained to summer. But FX's John Landgraf argues that cable networks have been seeing success all year long.
"We went to year-round programming in 2004 when we moved 'Nip/Tuck' to September," says Landgraf, who is holding his scripted premieres back for fall and spring. "We can't detect any difference in the ratings between whether a show airs in the summer or other parts of the year."
Even the growing number of network premieres every summer isn't worrying execs.
"Our marketing budgets may not be as good as broadcast, but I would argue that our shows definitely are," ABC Family's Paul Lee says. "Over the summer they get the chance to really get the attention they deserve."
Summer's scripted debuts most likely to score big numbers
(Disney Channel, June 20)
This movie stars the Jonas Brothers -- ask any tween girl if you still don't know who they are -- and features a wealth of musical performances. Could be the next "High School Musical" ...
The American Mall
(MTV, Aug. 1)
... until this movie musical's debut. "Mall," which centers on an aspiring singer-
songwriter whose dreams come closer to fruition when she meets an aspiring rock star, is from "HSM's" executive producers.
The Secret Life of the American Teenager
(ABC Family, July 1)
This "Juno"-ish series is from "7th Heaven" creator Brenda Hampton, who knows a thing or two about family drama. Some of the network's "Greek" buzz could spill over.
(A&E, July 15)
A&E found a hit with its unscripted "Intervention." Now the network is hoping a fictionalized version -- its first original scripted drama in six years -- will connect with viewers. Benjamin Bratt stars as a heroin addict-turned-extreme interventionist.
Kimberly Nordyke writes for The Hollywood Reporter.
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