The dramatic difference

Networks make mark with scripted original series

When "The Cleaner" premieres on A&E in July, it will mark the network's return to scripted original dramatic series after more than six years.

But it also will mark another turning point in the evolution of cable television as all of the general-entertainment cable networks—AMC, FX, TNT and USA, in addition to A&E—will now be competing on the industry's most prestigious, fastest-growing and most expensive battlefield.

Following the path forged by FX and USA six years ago, each network has made a serious commitment not only to original dramatic series but also to high-quality, sometimes cutting-edge programming designed to lure viewers and ad dollars from broadcast television. (TBS, the other general-entertainment network, has made its own commitment to original series—comedies.)

"When we first began developing series for Turner in 2003, I literally drove around town to all the various studios and agencies and pitched us as a reasonable place for them to bring their talent and their series," says Michael Wright, senior VP in charge of the content creation group for Turner Entertainment Networks. "There was a lot of: 'Why would we do that?'

"Flash forward to five years later. It's a remarkable time where amazing writers, producers and actors aren't just OK with cable, but choosing to go there first," Mr. Wright says. "At one point the notion of a cable series may have connoted something less expensive or something less attractive. But now I think it connotes something that is a bit more provocative or original. Shows are being made by the best in the business, drawing terrific ratings. Cable has arrived, in terms of original series."

Viewers increasingly are going to cable first for the sort of high-quality weekly dramas that used to be the exclusive domain of the broadcast networks. Witness TNT's "The Closer," which in its third season became the most-watched cable series in history with an average of more than 8 million weekly viewers. Or FX, which on the strength of its portfolio of eight original series, has grown into one of the top five prime-time cable networks among the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

"A number of cable networks now have proven the model: Not only can you bring in enough viewers to create commercial success for the network, but you can actually create assets for studios," says Jeff Wachtel, exec VP-original programming for USA Network, whose "Monk" and "Psych" are receiving encore telecasts on sibling network NBC.

When A&E began to reinvent its brand four years ago, the goal was to "rebuild A&E viewership and attract a more monetizable audience," says Exec VP-General Manager Bob DeBitetto. "We knew high-end premium original programming could and should be a big part of the brand, as it had in the past. It's something we've been working toward for four years, and now is the right time to get back into the game in earnest. It's putting the last big piece of the puzzle in place."

In May, A&E will show the four-hour "The Andromeda Strain," its first big original scripted event in some time, followed by the premiere of "The Cleaner" in July. Benjamin Bratt stars in both projects; as "The Cleaner," his character is based on a real man named Warren Boyd who "saves people," Mr. DeBitetto says.

The investment in original programming, of course, is not designed just to attract viewers. Says Mr. DeBitetto, "There are some very valid strategic reasons why, although they are expensive programs, these original programs can be very powerful drivers of revenue growth."

In particular, he says, "Among the blue-chip client base, there's nothing like a quality original-scripted show. They covet these high-quality environments."

A&E used its acquisition of HBO's "The Sopranos" to attract "an entire category of blue-chip clients we hadn't enjoyed before," Mr. DeBitetto says. "We were able to achieve the highest CPMs we have ever had on the network. What these new shows like 'The Cleaner' will do is preserve those advantages 'The Sopranos' brought in the door for us."

Last year it was AMC, basic cable's movie channel, that jumped into the fray—with "Mad Men," its Golden Globe- and Peabody Award-winning look at life on Madison Avenue in the heyday of advertising.

"Our thinking was to complement the programming that already existed on AMC—fantastic movies," says Christina Wayne, senior VP-scripted series and miniseries. "What we wanted to do was to provide our audience a cinematic experience when they transfer from one of our movies into a one-hour drama. The thinking was to give them the same caliber of acting and writing from the same types of people who make movies."

This summer, "Mad Men" will be back for its second season on AMC. Other summer premieres include the fourth season of "The Closer" and the second of "Saving Grace" from TNT. In June, USA Network will debut "In Plain Sight," as well as new episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Then in July, USA will launch the seventh season—including the 100th episode—of "Monk" in addition to new seasons of "Psych" and "Burn Notice."

John Landgraf, president of FX, says, "When this movement began, scripted original series on cable was a phenomenon largely confined to the summer—and new shows are still very clustered in the summer." The idea, of course, was to attract viewers and advertisers to cable while the broadcast networks were on summer programming schedules.

Cable's original series have done a very good job of turning the summer season into something special for viewers. Jack Wakshlag, research chief for Turner, points out that in 1975, the number of hours of television viewed per household per week was 15 percent lower in the summer than the yearly average of 43 hours. In 2006, not only was the yearly average up to 57.5 hours, summer viewing only dropped 3 percent—to a weekly average of 53 hours of TV viewed per household.

But cable increasingly is competing on the broadcast networks' fall and winter turf. Three years ago FX moved the premiere of its top-rated "Nip/Tuck" to fall. "From then on out, we have programmed 52 weeks a year," Mr. Landgraf says.

"Our perception is that whereas advertisers once looked at scripted programming on cable as a way to fill in and have a really robust summer season, now we can compete for ad dollars with broadcast networks all year around," he says.

Similarly, USA is turning its 2007 miniseries "The Starter Wife" into a weekly series that will premiere new episodes in October. Says Mr. Wachtel, "Last year we planted a flag in October, and we'll do that again this year. We have gone from one season to three. And we have not hit a ceiling yet."

The most ambitious schedule is being set by TNT, which in March announced it has 14 original series in development. Its plan is to fill Monday-to-Wednesday prime-time hours with original programming year-round by the year 2010. The schedule will contain a mix of scripted dramas and unscripted shows. "When we sat down five years ago and decided we needed to get into the series business, our approach was to go one step at a time," Mr. Wright says. "We were looking for series that were what I call commercial, but smart. Populist, but enlightened."

Now, with the top-rated "The Closer" and the modest hit "Saving Grace" under its belt, "We said about nine months ago that it was time to take the next step and expand exponentially," Mr. Wright says. Three new series, including a Steven Bochco legal drama called "Raising the Bar," are being produced for fall premieres.

With the growing number of original dramas on cable, "We have a greater obligation to deliver something special," Mr. Wright says. "With 300-plus channels and the majority of them trying to deliver original programming, you'd better have some combination of talent, concept and execution to get people to notice you."

Says A&E's Mr. DeBitetto, "It's a very competitive marketplace just for these high-quality shows. There are a number of us in cable and all the broadcast networks vying for great material, great writers and great creators. At some point, there's probably not enough great material to go around for everyone."

Although it's become a significantly more competitive marketplace, FX's Mr. Landgraf believes "the ad community will support these shows. For instance, as much more competition as FX has today than just a few years ago, our originals are always sold out."

For those who produce dramatic series, "The cable world has never been more exciting," says AMC's Ms. Wayne. "Right now you are getting the best programming that's been on for a long time. What cable is offering right now—you can't get that experience when you are watching broadcast television."