Basic Cable Thrives on Cutting-Edge Series

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

By Nancy Giges

The cable television industry is in the midst of an explosion of original programming. Networks such as ABC Family, A&E and Bravo are producing more hours of original programming—dramas, comedies, reality series and docudramas—than ever before.

It was the leading general-entertainment networks that set the table for this feast, with a serious investment in top-notch, prime-time scripted dramas that began nearly a decade ago and has accelerated since then.

USA Network is on a creative winning streak and has plans to dramatically increase its original-series offerings. AMC is doubling the size of its portfolio and, for the first time, will run back-to-back original premieres on Sunday nights starting in August. TNT continues to challenge the broadcast networks with a growing lineup of originals scheduled on multiple weeknights. And FX, which produced 97 episodes of original television in the year ending June 30, has 141 episodes planned for the next 12 months.

"It's arguably the most vibrant marketplace for innovation," says John Landgraf, president-general manager, FX Networks.

In summer 2011, Turner Entertainment's TNT will debut a new, as-yet-untitled alien invasion series created and produced by Steven Spielberg. The series stars Noah Wyle as the leader of a ragtag group of soldiers and civilians struggling against an extraterrestrial occupying force.

"[The Spielberg show is] one of the most exciting things for us on the horizon," says Michael Wright, exec VP-head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies. "It's fun, exciting—a very cool show with a lot of special effects."

In a media landscape in transition, the big general-entertainment, basic cable networks are picking up any slack left by the broadcast networks and running with it. And in producing more award-winning, cutting-edge programming, they are competing with the broadcast networks head-on and all year.

Mr. Landgraf points to the 10 p.m. (ET) time slot, traditionally where broadcast networks have experimented with their highest-quality, most risky programming. Now facing such edgy competition as "Lost" on ABC, he says, the broadcast networks are having trouble competing against premium and basic cable in the 10 p.m. drama space, also home to series such as AMC's "Breaking Bad," FX's "Sons of Anarchy" and USA's "White Collar."

Viewers, particularly younger ones, no longer distinguish between cable and broadcast, but instead sample shows from 10 or 12 favorite channels. Viewers are simply looking for shows they love and TV they relate to, Mr.Wright says.

Tapping in to more viewers, especially in certain desirable demographic groups, brings in blue-chip advertisers—the core of the broadcast networks' revenue. "For many advertisers, our first-run original series premieres are a must-buy for their reach portfolio," says LindaYaccarino, exec VP-chief operating officer, Turner Entertainment ad sales/marketing & acquisitions.

But that doesn't mean there aren't challenges all around. "We are in times of continuing and radical transformation," says Jeff Wachtel, president-original programming at NBC Universal's USA Network and co-head of original content for Universal Cable Productions. The viewing experience has become much more personal, and the critical mass that defines success in programming has changed from simply obtaining a high share to attracting a truly dedicated audience. Even a small audience may be viable because the ultimate value of a property now includes its off-cable worth: online, as a DVD, a game or other version of the experience.

"Like everybody, when we look into the crystal ball, we are not sure how the new world order is going to shake out in terms of how people consume content, but we are pretty sure there is always going to be a market for the best stuff," says Joel Stillerman, senior VP-original programming, production and digital content at AMC.

That belief in "the best stuff"—otherwise defined as great storytelling—coupled with the success of its critically acclaimed first two originals, "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," led AMC to double the amount of original programming it will host by the end of this year. AMC will debut "Rubicon," a conspiracy thriller, in August, and "The Walking Dead," a six-part series based on the popular comic books, in October. (AMC is also working on a drama with a working title of "The Killing," based on a successful Danish series about a police investigation of a young girl's murder, planned for early 2011.)

With both "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" racking up awards and viewing records in their third seasons, AMC has seen advertising spike 18 percent while interest from highly desirable automotive and financial services advertisers has increased as well, says Arlene Manos, president-national advertising sales for network parent Rainbow Media.

USA, the No. 1 prime-time cable network in 2009 for adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, according to Nielsen Media Research, is also trying to step down its age demos. "We moved some of our stuff off a safer night, a Friday, to more competitive slots midweek. That was a risk, and it paid off," Mr. Wachtel says.

Last winter, "Psych," a comedy-drama about a young police consultant who solves crimes with his powers of observation, chalked up its most-viewed season among viewers 18 to 34 after moving from Friday to Wednesday night.

A strategy of flexible scheduling has been key to USA's success, as has the network's commitment to programs that reflect its "Characters welcome" brand tag.

Flexibility allows USA to lead viewers from one show to another. Last winter, USA scheduled its best originals at 10 p.m. and, during each, promoted another series scheduled for the same time period the following night.

In the summer, USA takes a different tack, blocking shows at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., with a highly rated show leading into a newer one. Last summer, the network scheduled season three of "Burn Notice"—the No. 1 prime-time cable show with age groups 18 to 49 and 25 to 54—immediately before its new show, "Royal Pains." The latter went on to post the most successful freshman year of any scripted show in cable history.The two shows ended up each averaging more than 7 million viewers per week, so successful that USA is taking the same approach of running them back to back when the two series debut new seasons in June.

The network is bringing back six series from last year—all except pioneering "Monk," which ended its eight-year run as the most-watched basic cable original drama series in history, according to Nielsen, hitting a series high with 9.4 million total viewers for its final episode in December. Two new shows, "Covert Affairs" and "Facing Kate," are planned to debut this summer and fall, respectively.

For its part, TNT is continuing on a path to becoming a multinight alternative to broadcast. In addition to next year's Spielberg series, TNT is debuting "Rizzoli & Isles," which features Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander as female crime busters, and "Delta Blues," about a Memphis cop who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator. These join TNT's seven other solidly performing originals, led by "The Closer," which averaged 7.7 million viewers in 2009.

"It's working beautifully," says Mr. Wright of TNT's strategy. Last summer, the network "took a really big leap," launching original programming on three nights after at most doing three series a year. "On every night, we significantly outperformed both our prime-time average and the previous year, and [we] saw big growth across the schedule," Mr.Wright says.

FX earned its stripes with edgier shows that brought in a younger, more male audience from the start. It continues to broaden its viewership by expanding out from that core by adding shows from different genres. "A bigger programming brand means a bigger programming mix," Mr. Landgraf says. "If a channel has three series ... and they are "Nip/Tuck," "The Shield" and "Rescue Me" [three edgy FX successes], it's a pretty lucky channel. If I had a dozen shows ... and every one seemed to push the boundaries back, I think we would feel like a one-trick pony."

Mr. Landgraf says FX has grown so much it no longer looks like itself from eight years ago. "The brand and identity created by the original programming ('There is no box') is a big part of that even though we have spent a lot of energy and time to significantly upgrade and ramp up our slate of acquired theatrical films, which will start in a major way this fall. I don't want to give the impression that a basic cable network can live on originals alone."

Two new upcoming drama series ("Terriers," set for September, and "Lights Out," planned for early next year) don't push the envelope quite as far as other FX hits such as "Sons of Anarchy." FX has also expanded its lineup to include more original comedies. Eight years after rolling "The Shield" out as its first scripted original series, the network has six original scripted-drama and comedy series in production or running in its lineup (including "Justified," which debuted in March). All have contributed to making FX a Top 5 cable channel with adults 18 to 49.

Mr. Landgraf says he expects the number of original series on FX to soon grow from 10 to 12 or 13, which clearly places the cable network head-to-head with broadcast nets. That's the number of scripted original series NBC had on the air last year, he says. "It's amazing to me that a cable channel can be even in the same ZIP code as a broadcast network."