Turner Network Television this week rolls the dice on one of its biggest gambles to date: the debut of its first hour-long original dramatic series, Bull. The network is also trying to cast as wide a net as possible so audiences get a chance to see it.
Viewers will have not one, not two, but three opportunities to tune in and sample the show in its entirety this Tuesday (Aug. 15). TNT will premiere the first Bull episode at 8 p.m., then repeat it at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. The series debut-including on-air cut-ins by the cast-will offer counterprogramming to that night's TV coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Last week TNT officials explained their scheduling strategy for Bull, the tale of a group of young investment bankers who break out from a veteran Wall Street brokerage to form their own firm.
"We look for the biggest opportunity with the least amount of competition," TNT executive vice president and general manager Steve Koonin said. "And we're so excited about this show that we're in a mode to bring in sampling. That first week, we want as many eyeballs as possible."
TNT is following a time-honored cable tradition by kicking off its risky foray into dramatic series this week. Summer has been cable's season to premiere original shows, and broadcast is mimicking that strategy this year with the summer scheduling of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and CBS' Survivor.
Since June, a number of cable networks have launched programs with generally good ratings success, and more new shows-such as Bull-will debut in the coming weeks.
Some cable-research mavens noted last week that so far, overall TV viewership this summer is up, which means both cable and broadcast may ultimately emerge as winners as the dog days of August close.
From May 30 through July 28, there have been 28 cable premieres and six broadcast premieres of either new TV series or new episodes of returning series, according to Lifetime Television senior vice president of research Tim Brooks.
The 28 cable premieres, 17 of which are new series, were up 65 percent in terms of ratings over what their time periods had been averaging the prior four weeks. Only three cable premieres underperformed in their time slots, while the other 25 shows enjoyed ratings gains, Brooks said.
And the six broadcast premieres, which included Survivor and fellow CBS show Big Brother, were up 40 percent, he said. All 34 summer premieres, cable and broadcast combined, saw a collective 61 percent ratings increase in their time slots, he added.
In fact, more homes are watching TV this summer. In July, total household delivery grew 5 percent, up 2.5 million from a year ago, to 54.4 million homes.
"The summer is afire," Brooks said. "Everybody is up."
As of last week, Lifetime's new hour-long drama, Strong Medicine, had delivered the largest audience for an original basic-cable series debut this summer with a 2.3 rating, or 1.7 million households, according to Nielsen Media Research.
In its second week, Strong Medicine also posted a strong 2.2 rating, even though new shows typically dip dramatically after their debuts, Brooks said.
For example, Sci Fi Channel's The Invisible Man premiered in June with a 2.4 rating, but dropped to a 1.6 its second week, Brooks said.
In its past seven airings, Invisible Man is averaging a 1.4 rating, according to USA Cable vice president of research Ray Giacopelli. That's better than the 1.0 Farscape had done in that time period, he added.
Sci Fi's Crossing Over with John Edward-which debuted July 10 in the 11 p.m. time slot without much promotion-grew over a three-week course from an average 0.5 rating to a 0.7, Giacopelli said. The show is also strong with women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54-demographics that male-skewing Sci Fi likes to attract.
Sci Fi's sister service, USA Network, has had more of a mixed bag with its summer-series premieres.
USA's hour-long drama, The Huntress, is averaging a 1.8 rating, flat compared with the time slot last quarter and up 0.1 from a year ago, according to Giacopelli.
But the performance of USA's two new comedies-The War Next Door and Manhattan, AZ-has been far shakier. War, for example, averaged a 1.4 rating in its first two airings, less than the time slot's prior 1.5.
"The Huntress, up against [NBC's] Law & Order, is holding its own," Giacopelli said. "The jury is still out on the sitcoms."
Nickelodeon is crowing about the debut of its Latino series, The Brothers Garcia, which has averaged a 2.1 rating in its first two episodes, or 1.6 million homes, a 220 percent increase over its time period a year ago. The show airs at 8:30 p.m. Sundays.
"We thought it would be a hit, but it's performing beyond my wildest dreams," Nick senior vice president of production Kevin Kay said. "It's a breakthrough show."
Both Nick and Comedy Central are claiming that they just enjoyed their strongest July ever in terms of ratings.
During its big summer debut week June 18, Comedy launched Strip Mall, The League of Gentlemen and Don't Forget Your Toothbrush.
Both Strip Mall and Toothbrush are up in their time periods, by 44 percent and 66 percent, respectively, with an average 1.0 and 0.6 rating. The League of Gentlemen is down in its slot by 20 percent, with a 0.4 rating, senior vice president of programming Michele Ganeless said.
"We're very pleased with how all of these shows are performing," she added. "They've created a halo affect on the network."
Nonetheless, despite fairly strong new-series premieres, basic cable's overall primetime performance is not as good as past summers.
Cable's ratings gains, which typically have far outpaced the "Big Four," are lagging behind broadcast, which is getting a rocket lift from Millionaire and Survivor.
Basic cable garnered a 25.9 primetime rating in July, up 3 percent from a year ago, according to Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen data. The Big Four-ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox-saw a greater gain, up 4 percent, to a 22.0 rating. ABC, home of Millionaire, saw a whopping 16 percent increase.
In July, primetime ratings for six of the top 10 cable networks were either flat or down.
Bob Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner Broadcasting System Inc., sees the glass as half-full for cable. He noted that cable's ratings increases in key saleable demographics, rather than just households, are very strong.
"Cable's growth is not tied to just a handful of shows," he said. "Cable's gains are the result of breadth and even more product in the face of Millionaire, Survivor and Big Brother."
In July, TNT was down 11 percent in primetime to a 1.6 rating, even with the boost it got from its original miniseries, Nuremberg. During its various plays, Nuremberg reached 33.8 million different viewers. "It exceeded all of our expectations," Koonin said.
TNT is hoping to see a repeat of that success with Bull, which marks the beginning of the network's carefully planned expansion into dramatic hour-long series. It is one of the most competitive arenas in TV, and one that is dominated by broadcast.
To build interest in Bull, TNT is not only doing an extensive ad campaign, but it heavily promoted the series this past weekend during the debut of its original Tom Selleck movie, Running Mates. And for the first time, TNT is partnering with sister network CNNfn to promote Bull, with a stock-picking contest as part of the effort.
"The synergy [between TNT and CNNfn] will help to make Bull a hit," Koonin said.
Bull, regularly shown at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, has already collected some favorable notices. TV Guide critic Matt Roush wrote, "The production is surprisingly slick for cable drama.and the cast mostly terrific."
It remains to be seen how Running Mates performs. But some of cable's other original movies this summer enjoyed strong showings.
Lifetime's The Truth About Jane posted a 4.7 rating, making it the highest-rated original movie on basic cable this summer. FX's first original movie, Deliberate Intent, posted a 2.4 rating, making it the highest-rated original program in the network's six-year history, officials said last week.