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Long, Hot Winter

12/13/2010 12:01 AM Eastern

Though the Farmer's Almanac is predicting bonechilling temperatures for the next few months, for cable networks it’s beginning to feel a lot like summer.

Nearly a dozen basic-cable and
premium networks will introduce a
record 15 new scripted series in the
first quarter — more than double last year’s output — as adsupported
cable networks look to turn first-quarter 2011 into
a second summer season for new-series debuts.

Multichannel News cover story, Dec. 13, 2010January and February will also feature new episodes from
some of basic cable’s most popular shows, including TNT’s
The Closer and TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland.

“It’s really starting to
look like two seasons
for cable premieres —
there’s a June and January
season,” said TV
Land general manager
Larry Jones.

Industry executives say
they are warming up to
the idea of debuting new
shows during the winter
— when overall television
viewing is at its peak for
the year. And cable programmers
are shedding a
longtime fear of debuting
shows during an established
broadcast-network
stronghold.

For most of the past
decade, cable networks
have been leery of premiering
new scripted
shows during the fall and winter months, when the Big
Four broadcasters are still running original episodes of
their new and returning shows. Instead, the industry has
launched most of its original scripted series during the hot
summer months of June through September, when most
broadcast-network shows are in repeats.

But as networks begin to create more scripted content,
Michael Wright, executive vice president and head of programming
for TBS, TNT and TCM, said it’s necessary to
test the waters during other time periods.

SPREADING THE WEALTH

“To continue the evolution of the network toward a place
where we would have more programming than less, we
had to continue to expand beyond summer,” he said.

While a few networks have attempted to launch new
original shows during the fall, directly against the full
marketing and promotional brunt of the broadcast networks’
new shows, many cable outlets have begun to focus
on the first few months of the year, when audiences are
more likely to be watching television.

“The winter months are the right place to go because
it’s a time of year where HUT levels are pretty healthy and
you’re not going up against the onslaught of the fall broadcast
premieres,” said Wright.

Indeed, January and February are the only two months
of the year when houses using television (HUT) levels
hover above the 60% mark, according to a Disney-ABC
Television analysis of Nielsen data. With more eyeballs
watching, cable networks in recent years began using the
winter months to launch new episodes of original shows
that debuted during the summer.

This winter is no different, as summer hit shows like The
Closer
, ABC Family’s freshman hit drama Pretty Little Liars
and TBS’s comedy series Are We There Yet? will premiere
new episodes over the next few months.

Yet a new trend is emerging: Cable networks are premiering
a record number of shows between January and March of this year.

TV Land’s Jones said the winter months provide less
overall competition for new cable shows than the very
crowded summer cable landscape. While the network’s
biggest hit, Hot in Cleveland, premiered this past summer
and averaged a record 4.2 million viewers, the network
this January is pairing new episodes of the Betty White
vehicle with a new comedy series, Retired at 35.

“Competitively, we thought that there was an opportunity
in the winter, because it seemed like a time that we
could make some waves and get noticed,” Jones said.

CMT decided to cut its scripted-programming teeth in
January, with the launch of Working Class, in part to avoid
the competitive heat from cable’s summer fare. Mary Beth Cunin, senior vice president of CMT, said the network’s
two most-watched series, Gone Country and My Big Redneck
Wedding
, launched during consecutive Januarys, beginning
in 2009.

“Summer is getting a lot more crowded — there’s been
some significant launches in recent years,” she said. “In
January, the midseason [broadcast] shows are usually not
the force the fall shows are.”

Another network taking the scripted-series leap in January
is TV One, which will debut Love That Girl!, a comedy series
starring Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Tatyana Ali. A four-episode
preview of the series ran this past January and generated such
a positive response from audiences that the African-American
targeted network decided to wait a full year to launch it during
January 2011, according to TV senior vice president of program
strategy and acquisitions Maureen Guthman.

“[Love That Girl!] had very limited promotion and yet
it popped a big viewership number for us, so that gave us
the idea that this was a prime, fertile period to have a new
offering on our network,” she said. “Also, just to remain
competitive, we need to have something bright and shiny
to offer our viewers in the new year.”

While cable networks face stiffer competition from
broadcast networks during the winter months as the new
and returning fall TV shows continue their original episode
runs, FX president John Landgraf said cable’s winter
shows tend to have a niche focus that competes well
against broadcast shows that seek a broader audience.

Indeed, cable’s audience shares have increased during the
first quarter in each non-Winter Olympics year since 2005,
according to Turner Research analysis of Nielsen data.

FX was successful last winter in launching male-targeted
shows like drama Justified and animated comedy series
Archer. Landgraf said Archer will return this January for
its sophomore run, alongside the debut of boxing-themed
drama series Lights Out.

“I don’t look at the broadcasters as our competitors, because
they compete for a different viewer,” Landgraf said.
“The broadcasters are trying to get everyone between the
ages of 18 and 49, but the cable networks are more narrowly
focused and can target certain demographic segments
much more effectively than broadcast networks can.”

DRAMAS ON TAP

While the majority of new shows this winter are comedies,
a number of new and returning series are dealing
with more meaty and grittier subject matters. January
series launches such as MTV’s Skins, a U.S. version of
the R-rated British show about the lives of teenagers, and
TNT’s returning multi-faceted cop series Southland may
play better with audiences during winter months than
in the summer, when audiences expect more blue-sky/
escapist shows, according to TNT’s Wright.

“I think you’ll see more thoughtful programming in the
[winter] period,” Wright said. “You often look for the appropriate
time of the year based on the content of that show.”

Having new scripted content running during the February
broadcast networks sweeps period is no longer taboo
for cable networks, said David Bernath, executive
vice president of program strategy and multiplatform programming
for Comedy Central. The network will look to
reach younger audiences with Onion SportsDome, based
on the fake-news segments that appear on the satire website’s
Onion Sports Network page.

“The sweeps are not a factor ... we have a young audience,
and the broadcaster networks are [skewing audiences]
much older than us,” Bernath said. “Certainly, you
don’t want to launch a series during the Super Bowl, but
we feel confident that we will do well.”

As cable networks continue to develop and distribute
quality scripted fare, TV One’s Guthman believes that
more cable networks will inevitably look to launch new
programming during the spring and fall seasons as well.

“The whole idea of a set broadcast season is so quaint
now — it’s become a thing of the past,” she said. “If you
have a good property, you launch it where you feel its best,
and that could happen at any point in the year.”

WINTER WARMERS

A PARTIAL LIST OF SCRIPTED
ORIGINALS PREMIERING DURING
FIRST-QUARTER 2011:

NEW SCRIPTED SERIES

Being Human — Syfy

Episodes — Showtime

Fairly Legal — USA Network

The Game — BET
The Killing -- AMC
Let’s Stay Together — BET

Lights Out — FX

Love That Girl!— TV One

Onion News Network — IFC

Onion Sportsdome — Comedy Central

Portlandia — IFC

Retired at 35 — TV Land

Skins — MTV

Shameless — Showtime

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena — Starz

Working Class — CMT

RETURNING SCRIPTED SERIES

Archer — FX

Are We There Yet? — TBS

Big Love — HBO

Californication — Showtime

Caprica — Syfy

Greek — ABC Family

Hot in Cleveland – TV Land

House of Payne — TBS

Justified -- FX
Pretty Little Liars — ABC Family

Royal Pains — USA Network

Southland — TNT

September
October