Picture This

Cable’s Summer Job

6/09/2008 11:19 AM

Summer doesn’t officially begin for another three weeks, but for the broadcast networks school is already out and vacation has begun.

When networks start hyping such silly reality shows as Wipeout and I Survived a Japanese Game Show, you know the broadcast schedule-makers have shut it down and gone fishing.

Meanwhile, cable networks are just beginning to heat up with new and returning original series that are expected to draw millions of viewers seeking top-notch content from the comfort of their air-conditioned living rooms.

USA Network got the ball rolling June 1 with the debut of its newest original series, In Plain Sight, starring Mary McCormack as a tough-talking U.S. marshal who places people in the government’s witness-protection program. But McCormack’s Mary Shannon character won’t be the only tough woman on screens this summer — even with Hillary Clinton’s recent exit from the heavily televised presidential race.

Later this summer, TNT will return cable’s popular female law enforcers Grace Hanadarko (Saving Grace) and Brenda Johnson (The Closer) for new seasons of their respective shows on the drama network.

Among cable’s other returnees: AMC in July will bring back its freshman series Mad Men, while Sci Fi Channel will look to draw viewers back to the magical city of Eureka when that series returns for a new season.

Given cable’s strong original programming lineup and broadcast network’s repeat-heavy summer schedule, cable could surpass last summer’s record-breaking audience thrashing of the Big Five broadcast networks. Basic-cable networks drew 62.9% of all households last June to August, compared to a lackluster 27.6 share last year. 

 It didn’t have to be this way.

The three-month Writer’s Guild of America strike earlier this year forced the debut of new episodes of nearly every popular broadcast show from Grey’s Anatomy to CSI:Miami later into the television season. Given the unexpected hiatus, the broadcast networks had a golden opportunity to test the longstanding theory that many viewers don’t watch television after May — a theory that cable networks, for all intents and purposes, have put to rest.

Instead of all but conceding June, July and August to cable, the networks could have waited to air new episodes of some of its scripted series after May just to see if viewers would actually tune in. The Writer’s Guild of America strike gave broadcasters a built in excuse to delay the premiere of some series episodes into June and July.

And while cable hustled to get some of its top shows like The Closer, Mad Men and Lifetime’s Army Wives to air during cable’s key summer months, other traditional summer stalwarts like FX’s Rescue Me won’t reach viewers until next year, which could have given the broadcast networks a small opportunity to actually compete with cable for audience share.

Instead, the broadcast networks either reduced the number of scheduled episodes for many shows or, in the case of Fox’s popular drama series 24, never aired the series at all in order to conform to the television season’s traditional late May finale.

Then again, it probably wouldn’t have benefited the broadcasters much anyway. Even with the airing of Fox’s ratings juggernaut American Idol and the broadcasters’ other Sunday-best programming during the May sweeps, 60% of all television households still tuned in to TNT, USA, ESPN and Disney Channel for their viewing pleasure during the month.

And that was without any real franchise scripted series on which to hang their viewership fortunes — although the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association playoffs significantly helped cable get its ratings game on during the period.

And networks like FX will look to challenge the broadcast networks on their own playground this fall. FX will debut the final season of The Shield, while TNT debuts its new legal series Raising the Bar, during the fourth quarter, when the broadcast networks roll out their new shows for the 2008-09 season — a period that’s traditionally been off limits to strong original cable content.

In fact, there aren’t many vacation days on cable’s yearly programming schedule — and viewers seem to like it that way.

September