September is upon us, which means the annual ringing of school bells, the return of pro football and … the debut of cable network original series.
OK, the latter is not a traditional rite of fall — in fact, cable usually goes into hibernation while the broadcast networks wipe the sleep out of their eyes from a summer slumber to launch the annual fall and winter slate of new and returning dramas and sitcoms.
But this year is different. Fresh off a dominating ratings summer — despite record viewership for NBC's Summer Olympics coverage — cable networks like FX, TNT, Starz and even BET are looking to play on the broadcast networks' turf by premiering original scripted series during the fall months.
While the decision to offer shows like FX's Sons of Anarchy in September instead of its traditional summer slot was influenced somewhat by the three-month Writers Guild of America strike earlier this year, executives from cable networks say that they're no longer intimidated by the prospect of competing head to head with the big, bad broadcast networks. The ability of cable networks to establish their brands within the original scripted programming space, through the development of quality hits like TNT's The Closer and FX's Nip/Tuck, emboldened some networks to determine that viewers will follow them into the eye of the storm that is the broadcast network's fall season.
It's early, but so far cable's gamble is paying off. TNT set an all time record for a new series debut with the Labor Day launch of legal drama Raising The Bar. Riding the coattails of its lead-in The Closer, the Steven Bochco-produced series generated a whopping 7.7 million viewers despite competition from coverage of Hurricane Gustav by the cable news networks and The Weather Channel, as well as from new episodes of Fox's Prison Break and The CW's Gossip Girl.
The next night, FX returned Vic Mackey and its ground-breaking cop series The Shield for its seventh and final season to a respectable 2.1 million viewers after nearly a year's absence.
FX wasn't done breaking new scheduling ground. On Sept. 3 the network debuted its new motorcycle-club drama, Sons of Anarchy, drawing 2.5 million viewers — not bad, considering it was up against cable-news network coverage of “barracuda” Sarah Palin's vice presidential acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
Other networks mining for viewers for their original shows during the fall season include BET, which will debut its first original series, Somebodies, on Sept. 9; ABC Family, which will trot out its African-American tinged series Lincoln Heights for a third season Sept .16 (see review, page 8); and Starz, which will also test the scripted-series waters when it premieres Crash in October.
If those shows prove to be a ratings success as well, then we may have to add cable programming premieres to the telltale signs that the month of September is upon us — right alongside waiting in long lines at Staples to buy protractors and loose-leaf notebooks for junior.