Original scripted dramas usher in a new era for TV programming

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

By Julie Liesse

Actor Ian McShane was on "The Daily Show" on St. Patrick's Day, chatting with Jon Stewart about his newest series, NBC's "Kings."

Mr. McShane, who became an American TV star in HBO's "Deadwood," called "Kings" a "great, high-class soap opera" directed by a feature-film director. But, he said, "It's ambitious for network TV," and delivered his punch line: "It's really a cable show done for broadcast."

It was an "Alice in Wonderland" moment: cable quality on broadcast TV? After all, when the cable TV industry was in its infancy 25 to 30 years ago, it was largely a repository for reruns of broadcast TV series and old movies. Even a decade ago, quality original programming on cable usually meant premium cable networks, and specifically HBO. But then Detective Vic Mackey appeared on FX's "The Shield" seven years ago, followed shortly after by "Monk" on USA Network, ushering in a new era for cable programming.

Now, with Detective Mackey retired from TV and Mr. Monk preparing to solve his final case this summer, they are leaving the market for original scripted cable dramas in very capable hands: those of Don Draper, Brenda Leigh Johnson, Michael Westen and Tommy Gavin (from AMC's "Mad Men," TNT's "The Closer," USA's "Burn Notice" and FX's "Rescue Me").

"Increasingly, the best television programming is on cable," says Bob DeBitetto, president-general manager of A&E, which returned to original scripted dramas last year with "The Cleaner." "More and more cable networks are offering quality shows that a few years ago might have been thought of as broadcast shows."

It's hard to overestimate the importance of these original scripted dramas to the cable industry—and in the current economy in particular. They drive viewership: Series such as "The Closer," "Monk," and "Burn Notice" draw more than 6 million viewers each in a typical week. They anchor a cable network's brand identity. They bring advertisers, especially top-tier advertisers, to a network.

"In a difficult media marketplace, cable networks like ours can grow because we have the so-called 'broadcast replacement programming'—the high-quality, scripted environment that blue-chip clients want, and more and more are finding on cable," says Mr. DeBitetto.

Jeff Wachtel is president-original programming for USA Network, the No. 1 prime-time cable network according to Nielsen Media Research. Under Mr. Wachtel's creative leadership, USA has expanded its portfolio of original dramas and will have fresh episodes of six original series running this summer—including the seventh and final season of "Monk" as well as its newest offering, "Royal Pains."

Says Mr. Wachtel, "Even though 80 percent of what's on-air at USA are acquired series—and great acquired series, like 'House' and 'NCIS'—these original shows are such drivers for our network and the medium as a whole. Sales guys like selling the originals. The audiences identify cable networks with their originals. They bring new viewers to the network."

USA and FX, with seven seasons of original drama programming under their belts, are the veterans. Each has established a clear brand image though its original series: USA boasts the "Characters welcome" tag in deference to its distinctive, sometimes quirky lead characters, while FX connotes an edgy stylishness. "There is no box," FX reminds viewers.

"You have to tip your hat to our peers, USA Network and FX," says Michael Wright, who oversees programming for TNT. "Between those two networks and ours, there has been real progress from six or seven years ago, when a cable series was considered somehow secondary, to today when cable means prestigious. It's been an amazing transformation."

For a network such as AMC, just one or two successful original dramas can alter the landscape—for viewers, advertisers and creatives. "When 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' are your calling cards, you have an embarrassment of riches," says Joel Stillerman, senior VP-original programming, production and digital content for AMC.

AMC will debut the third season of the critically acclaimed "Mad Men" in August, and has already signed a deal for a third season of "Breaking Bad," set for 2010. "Our network now is regularly thought of as a first choice for creatives to bring original material," Mr. Stillerman says. "That is an enormous change from where we were."

Mr. Wachtel of USA says, "The world has changed from the 40-share, three-network world." When USA ran "The Starter Wife," a miniseries starring Debra Messing that was extended into a short-term series, "it was most successful as a branding exercise, enhancing the profile of the network with advertisers and affiliates," he adds. "It also got ratings, but it was a lot bigger for us than just that."

Cable networks began by scheduling originals such as "Monk" and "The Closer" in the summer, after the traditional broadcast season had ended. Increasingly the top cable networks are confident enough in their signature series to compete directly with the broadcast networks—with originals premiering in key broadcast months and in time slots traditionally dominated by broadcast series.

"Our emphasis is still on summer," says Mr. Wachtel. "But when we started doing original programming seven years ago, it was, 'Oh, you can't compete with the broadcast networks.' Then when we started to move out of summer, it was, 'Oh, you can't compete with broadcast in season.' But we were doing it on Friday, which was a little less competitive. Then with 'Burn Notice' we took on Thursday night at 10 p.m., and with 'Law and Order: Criminal Intent' we went to Sundays."

And with NBC moving Jay Leno into the 10 p.m.(ET) weeknight slot—the traditional home of classic broadcast drama, from "NYPD Blue" to "Hill Street Blues" to "ER"—cable networks are licking their chops as they look to expand their viewership even further.

Turner Entertainment Networks has been aggressively challenging the broadcast model, with the greatest number of original series on the most number of nights. Says Mr. Wright, exec VP-head of programming for TBS and TNT, "We are expanding thoughtfully, night by night. We have a limit in mind. But at the same time that's happening, and as other cable networks are getting into the game, I do think that the fact that the broadcast networks are turning over more of their schedules to unscripted programming is an opportunity for us."

Expectations are high for the menu of top cable dramas returning this summer, which includes AMC's "Mad Men" and A&E's "The Cleaner" as well as new seasons of longstanding USA hits "Monk" and "Psych," plus the network's "Burn Notice," the top new cable show among adults 18-to-49 last year. TNT will launch the fifth season of its megahit "The Closer," as well as new seasons of "Raising the Bar," "Saving Grace" and its surprise ace, "Leverage," which came on strong at the end of its freshman year, particularly with male viewers.

A&E will unveil its lineup at its upfront presentation this month, which will mark the network's 25th anniversary as well as the success of its recent makeover. Although A&E is proud of "The Cleaner" and working on additional scripted dramas, 90 percent of its schedule is made up of acquired series and such real-life dramas as "Intervention" and "The First 48."

"At A&E, we believe less is more," Mr. DeBitetto says. "If you think of our programming as a pyramid, there is room at the top for two, perhaps three original dramas in any given year that will work overtime in driving our brand, our ad strategy and the premium nature of our network. But we are not inundating our audience with too many so they don't seem so special. Each of our original dramas needs to reinforce who we are and what we stand for."