Cable Wins at Beach Blanket Bingo


The summer is in full swing, which means lots of trips to the beach. Along with suntan lotion and beach towels, don't be surprised if you see a number of people packing portable generators juicing small TVs and digital video recorders under their beach umbrellas.

I mean, how else will people keep up with the nearly 30 scripted cable series that are offering first-run episodes from June to September?

It seems as if every Tom, Dick and Spike in the cable-network business has launched or will launch a scripted series between the time the broadcast networks go into their collective scripted hibernation in late May and the time they emerge from their slumber in mid-September.

And why not? With the exception of a few truly breakout reality shows, no other genre of entertainment programming can put a network on the television map quicker and more forcefully than a scripted series. FX was a virtually unknown network in the late 1990s before it launched The Shield and Nip/Tuck. Now it averages more than 1.2 million viewers in primetime and has the eye of TV critics around the country.

Showtime has been HBO's stepchild for most of its premium life. Now, with The Sopranos sleeping with the fishes, Showtime may be poised to whack HBO's position as the leader in original scripted premium content with such critically-acclaimed series as Weeds and the cop/serial-killer drama Dexter.

Viewers love to watch a good story and will often tune in at record audience levels for quality scripted series, as several networks have gleefully discovered this summer. TNT's The Closer broke its own cable drama-series viewership record last month when its third season premiere drew a whopping 8.8 million viewers. TNT's sister service TBS set the same record in the comedy genre in June, when its African-American family-based series House of Payne drew 5.8 million sets of eyeballs.

Even SoapNet drew 1 million viewers for the first time in its history — at 11 p.m., no less — with the July 12 premiere of its steamy, fast-paced virgin original drama series General Hospital: Night Shift.

Overall, cable networks have spawned nearly 30 new or returning scripted series since June — the most scripted fare in the history of the industry. And very few are cut from the traditional cop serial and sitcom cloth that permeates broadcast television. From marijuana-selling mamas (Showtime's Weeds) to conflicted lawyers (FX's Damages) to Big Apple baseball, blackouts and serial killers (ESPN's The Bronx Is Burning), cable's ensemble of scripted programming covers virtually every genre and targets almost every demo.

Further, cable was smart enough to create its own version of the broadcast network's fall season in the summer, when the older medium's scripted shows are in reruns and reality takes over the airwaves. July is a much more fertile time for TNT to launch its new, angelic-tinged cop series Saving Grace on Monday nights, when it's up against reality shows like Hell's Kitchen, rather than in September when it might compete in primetime with NBC's powerhouse series Heroes.

The only downside to the explosion of scripted fare is a potential glut of programming. With so many dramas and comedies vying for viewer loyalty — and with the historical success rate of scripted series hovering around 15% to 20% — undoubtedly, some of the shows on air today will not be back for the summer of 2008.

That's particularly true for serial dramas. Ever try to watch more than three shows at the same time with continuous storylines? It's exhausting … it's like being in several relationships simultaneously, with each partner expecting the same level of attention and time commitment. There are only so many shows that viewers can commit to on a week-to-week basis.

That's why DVRs were created. So if you're a TV fan, make sure you pack the TiVo in the beach bag along with flip flops and a sand pail. It's probably the only way you'll be able to watch all the antics of Tommy Gavin, Brenda Johnson and Adrian Monk before Labor Day.