Cable programming is largely a mix of acquired movies, reality shows, reruns of series from broadcast networks, animation, sports and news. So by the very nature of their schedules, cable networks are in a fairly good position to weather a prolonged strike by TV writers, executives said last week.
In fact, some officials are predicting cable will see a ratings' uptick as a result of the strike.
Certainly, cable networks such as TNT, TBS, USA Network, FX and HBO have enjoyed great ratings success this year with a bumper crop of scripted shows, which are the work of creative writers. But the bulk of their schedules are not original series.
And that will mitigate the impact of the strike by the Writers Guild of America, whose members have put down their pens in protest against TV and movie studios. The strike is entering its seventh week, and it has put a halt to the production of scripted TV shows and movies.
“I don't think we're as vulnerable [as broadcast] because we don't have as large an inventory of original scripted content,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System, whose stable includes TNT, TBS, CNN, Cartoon Network, Court TV and Turner Classic Movies. Other programmers would not go on the record, but echoed Wakshlag's remarks privately.
At Turner, for instance, Wakshlag said: “We don't have to worry about sports [programming]. Our movies are in the can. Our acquired series are fine. News goes ahead as news does.”
For example, TNT's The Closer has delivered the biggest audience ever for a drama or series on cable in 2007, averaging 8.1 million viewers in primetime. But scripted shows only make up a small portion of TNT's lineup, with theatricals and off-network fare like Law & Order filling a large chunk of its schedule.
“Let's say we have 60 hours of original content during the course of a year,” Wakshlag said. “We're very happy with it. We're very proud of it. Advertisers love to be in it. It certainly raises the profile of the network. But in terms of its effect on the final rating, it's not going to be as big, because it's only 60 hours.”
That's in contrast to the broadcast networks, whose primetime lineups are less diverse, loaded up each night with scripted shows whose production has been derailed, like ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Fox's 24.
While several broadcasters have already unveiled their lineups for next year, cable networks seem to still be weighing their options, waiting to see what develops. Many cable networks have enough new scripted show to last through the spring.
Some of FX's marquee dramas are already being held up by the strike. It has completed production on a full season of The Shield, and the first 14 episodes of Nip/Tuck, FX Networks president and general manager John Landgraf said last week. FX only completed half of the orders for Dirt and The Riches, and has no scripts for the new season of Rescue Me.
“We have seven episodes of Dirt and seven episodes of The Riches, [which] I'd prefer not to air as half seasons,” Landgraf said.
But he noted that USA Network often breaks the runs of shows such as Monk and Psych into two parts, and FX could do that as well by just running the initial completed installments of Dirt and The Riches.
“So conceivably, we could have five of our eight shows on the air, no matter what, over the course of the next six or eight months,” Landgraf said. “Obviously we want to get back into production on Dirt, The Riches and also Damages.”
Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel, said that her programming team is sketching out different scenarios, based on when the strike ends and what her competitors do.
“You have to be able to make very quick decisions, have all the pieces ready to go based on where we end up,” Hammer said. “It's just being nimble [in] how you approach what you schedule.”
In addition to turning to reality programming, CBS and NBC are also borrowing content from their cable cousins for replacement programming during the strike. CBS plans to run fare from its premium service Showtime, possibly edited versions of Dexter and Weeds. And in January NBC will repurpose episodes of USA's Law & Order: Criminal Intent, airing it on Wednesday night along with Law & Order.
Viewers who don't usually expect to find repeats on broadcast networks [the way they do on cable], or tire of new reality fare like NBC's American Gladiator, could turn to cable networks, instead.
“In the short-term, there is the potential that the cable networks can benefit when they have original programming when the networks are running a lot of reality programming and repeats,” said Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group director of programming. But he noted if the strike lingers, cable's scripted shows will eventually be impacted.
“Clearly, broadcast shares are not going to go up if they are unable to replenish their original scripted content,” Wakshlag said. “The share is going to go someplace. Certainly, it's got to come to us. I can't say how much, but some.”