Recently, the Multichannel News editorial team sat down to consider hit series that have served as “magnets” for their cable networks, boosting their audiences and critical prestige.
But cable's must-see programs have gained such critical mass that the shows in this report are only a sampling, and not a definitive list.
We're focusing on series that have debuted in the last four years — or, if they are more mature, have recently experienced a big boost in ratings or critical praise. And we only allowed one series per channel.
Each profile contains analysis of why these shows have captured the imagination of audiences, as well as insights from those who critique TV shows.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
While Family Guy and Futurama may have received more attention as driving forces behind Adult Swim, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the highest-rated original series and the bedrock of Cartoon Network's young adult-targeted late-night programming block that evolved into its own network in the second quarter.
And who could question the show's sustenance? As Rick Kushman, TV critic for The Sacramento Bee puts its: “Who doesn't like a crime-fighting French fry?” Especially, when Frylock is accompanied by the group's self-appointed leader Master Shake and tasty shape-shifter Meatwad.
The 15-minute installments about this elite crime-solving team have been stripped together in the midnight half-hour Monday through Wednesday. During the first quarter, the show was basic-cable's top performer among persons 12 to 24 in its time period — pulling in 767,000 viewers, a 54% jump over what Adult Swim's previous programming had garnered in that time period last year. Aqua also topped cable's viewership rankings during the time period for males 12 to 24, adults 18 to 24 and males 18 to 24.
“It captures the serial goofiness that Adult Swim stands for. It's smart, stupid fun,” said Melanie McFarland, TV critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “It takes a while to grow on you, but eventually you realize that in a very strange way the show is making social commentary.”
More is on the way. Cartoon has commissioned a fifth season, comprising 20 installments. —Mike Reynolds
If there's anything that Battlestar Galactica proves, it's that there's life in old sci-fi TV franchises, if injected with enough star power, production spending and psychological gravitas.
A darkly rendered updating of the Star Wars “homage” series from 1978-90 (starring Lorne Greene), Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar first rocketed as a miniseries in 2003 and recently ended its first season as a Sci Fi series as the No. 1 rated cable show in all day parts among both men and women in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos — Sci Fi's highest rated series ever. The cliffhanger ending audaciously saw Greene's counterpart, Edward James Olmos, shot and seemingly about to die. Season 2 will be hustled onto the air in July.
The program, a coproduction of Sci Fi's corporate sibling NBC Universal Television Studio and BSkyB's Sky One channel, goes beyond tried-and-true imaginings of intergalactic wars and technical marvels. It paints on an emotional canvas, “depicting adult characters with adult problems,” says Ed Martin, programming editor of The Jack Myers Report. “It has real substance. The president of — I don't know what to call her — the human race, is battling breast cancer while trying to govern the remaining human population,” he adds, referring to President Laura Roslin, as played by Mary McDonnell.
“What's good about it, to me, is it's not a sci-fi show,” says Diane Werts, TV critic for Newsday. “It has a really rich premise that's relatable, psychological and adult.” Sure it still pulls in the geeks, she adds, but it also is appealing “to the rest of the viewing public.” —Janet Stilson
Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central became a breakout hit by “not just bitch-slapping authority, but having a party while doing it,” according to Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys.
But the future of the irreverent show and its talented maestro, Dave Chappelle, is currently in limbo, after Comedy Central suspended production and delayed the May 31 debut of the program's third season.
Any permanent loss of the edgy sketch-comedy would be a blow to Comedy Central, as it represents the network's next wave of provocative signature programming, in the mold of South Park and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
In the nothing-is-sacred tradition of those programs, stand-up comedian Chappelle zealously lampoons American culture. Who else would bring us Tyrone Biggums, a crack addict who calls on an elementary school to lecture against drug abuse?
“Dave Chappelle is one of those odd talents who isn't quite what he seems,” says Rick Kushman, TV critic for The Sacramento Bee. “He's this sort of edgy and yet really accessible guy. He's also a very smart guy, and that all shows up in the show.”
In addition to critical acclaim, the show has racked up impressive ratings. In its second season, Chappelle's Show posted a 2.6 rating, averaging 3.1 million total viewers in its Wednesday main play. It was also the No. 1 show in its time slot in all of television in the elusive men-18-to-34 demographic. —Linda Moss
Just when everyone thought the western TV series was buried in some lonesome prairie grave, along came Deadwood on Home Box Office. “This show is ramping up to be in the league of Sex and the City and The Sopranos when it hits its fifth season or so,” says David Baldwin, the executive vice president of program planning at HBO and Cinemax.
Sure, it contains some of the harshest language to be found on television. But the aesthetic updating and retooling of the genre has attracted the kinds of audience that The Sopranos and Sex achieved in their early years, according to Baldwin. Last year, it had the tremendous lead-in of Sopranos, so it's in a bit of a down draught this season in its solo flight pattern — an average weekly cume of about 6.5 million viewers, season to date, according to HBO.
The Deadwood cast and crew, led by the show's creator and executive producer David Milch, has also lassoed two Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award.
And there is substantial critical acclaim. “There's no question that Deadwood is among the very best written TV shows in the medium,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “There are four or five-minute runs that are positively Shakespearian.”
“Ian McShane could very well win best actor in a drama at the Emmys this year. He's that good,” adds Ed Martin, programming editor for The Jack Myers Report. —Janet Stilson
Degrassi: The Next Generation
It has all the elements of a primetime drama: guns, conflicts between gay and straight characters, promiscuous friends and out-of-touch authority figures. And, oh yeah … the main characters have homework at night.
The show is DeGrassi: The Next Generation, and it has become the “it” thing to watch for teenagers. The Noggin-based series, which follows the trials and tribulations of several high school kids, was born 25 years ago in Canada and became a big hit on PBS.
Noggin resurrected the series in April 2002, and used it to anchor its “N” teen-targeted nighttime block of programming. The result has been an immediate critical ratings and pop-culture success. “There's some kind of history to the show, but it's been adapted to the sensibility and the culture of today's teen audience,” said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Media Group.
And viewers have responded. The Dec. 10 premiere of the show's fourth season ranked as the highest-rated episode of Degrassi in the network's history among teens, delivering a 2.65 rating among persons 12-17. Overall, the show reached some 540,000 viewers.
“It's defining for the network, because I think teens really do love it. But it's also the kind of show that a lot of adults who don't have children would watch,” Seattle Post-Intellegencer TV critic Melanie McFarland. —R. Thomas Umstead
Dog The Bounty Hunter
These days the most visible on-screen face of A&E Network is bearded and covered by long tresses and sunglasses. It belongs to the tattooed Duane “Dog” Chapman, star of the reality series Dog The Bounty Hunter, currently in its second season.
With a little help from a theme song performed by Ozzie Osbourne, the weekly look into the professional and personal life of a bounty hunter captures some 2 million viewers on average, 73% above A&E's primetime average. “Dog has dramatically increased our ratings and helped lower our median age by more than a decade [to 49],” said Nancy Dubuc, senior vice president of non-fiction and alternative programming at A&E.
Some critics, like USA Today's Robert Bianco, are unimpressed, believing that with shows like Dog, “at the very least what they can do for us is take the 'A' out of A&E.”
Others understand why the show has connected with viewers. “You have this big biker-looking guy with tattoos. He looks like he'd break your knees, but he grieves for these people and pledges to help get them off drugs,” says Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research at Lifetime Television and co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. “It's an unexpected: the guy with the gruff exterior, with a heart of gold underneath.”
Dubuc categorizes the show as “being personal and redemptive in nature. It's unlike a drama where you have the same characters every week. With Dog you have different characters coming on every week and solutions are found.” —Mike Reynolds
Leave it to GSN to take a playground staple, pump up its curiosity factor with teams made up of everything from certified public accountants to tattoo artists, and mold it into a network hit.
And they're not done tinkering with Extreme Dodgeball, network officials say.
The show features battle-by-ball between two teams, hurling and juking their way through four six-minute periods, racking up points for their “kills.” Bill Dwyer calls the action, with color provided by former ESPN Dream Job contestant Zach Selwyn and sideline reports by Jerri Manthey (Survivor).
The show has drawn the network's youngest-skewing demographic, with an audience comprised of 26% 2-17 year olds and 46% 18-49 year olds. Fourth-quarter ratings for Extreme Dodgeball showed the sports show more than doubled the ratings of those two demographics in 2004 compared to the same time-slot in 2003, according to the network. It averages a .3 household rating.
Goldderby.com host Tom O'Neil says the network acknowledged the trend of created sports, as well as the popularity of the absurdist movie comedy Dodgeball and created a hit.
“They made something different and definitely raised the stakes,” he says.
GSN will try to further inflate the interest in the series with changes in the next season. Teams will be regionalized and represent Los Angeles (the Armed Response), Denver (the Hurlers), Chicago (the Hit Men), Philadelphia (the Benjamins) and New York (the Bling). Team leaders will include celebrities from television (Mario Lopez, Hal Sparks) and the sports world (Denver snowboarder Tara Dakides). —Linda Haugsted
The L Word
The ensemble of sexy women on The L Word may seem like so much forbidden fruit to many a heterosexual male. But for Showtime, it certainly seems like a couple of S words — as in smash success.
Robert Thompson, director for the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, contends that the risqué perception of the show isn't what's driving its popularity. Granted, it's “way beyond Ellen by light years,” Thompson says, it's really just good old-fashioned soap opera. In his opinion, what makes a show a hit isn't its subject matter, but how well it's executed. “You care about these characters. They're put through so many soap-like iterations, it's a hard show not to come back to.”
Viewers are certainly returning. Overall, total gross ratings points for the second season are outpacing the first season by 37%. And ratings for the 18-34 female demo have doubled in the current season, when compared with the first season last year. That increase may be partially due to a new scheduling strategy. This season The L Word is airing on Showtime both at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Sunday, versus just 10 p.m. last year.
Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys and host of the Web site goldderby.com, contends that it's smart for Showtime to focus on lesbianism with this show. “Since the stereotype is that lesbians are more emotionally involved in each other, rather than a male's passing physical pleasure, the show has more to build on,” he says.
“I would downplay its social relevance,” adds Thompson. He notes that L Word breaks through stereotypes, depicting lesbians as everything from “wild to conservative to shy to promiscuous to faithful.” —Janet Stilson
USA Network never got much respect until Monk came along. But the adventures of the obsessive-compulsive, yet somehow endearing, detective have put the general-entertainment channel in a new league.
“Monk showed that a basic-cable network like USA could create a popular hit and an Emmy-winning success. And it changed the way people look at basic-cable series,” USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco says.
People could no longer assume that The Shield was “some fluke,” he adds.
Monk proved “that it was possible for more than one network to do these things, and not just HBO,” Bianco says.
The show has won its share of critical acclaim, and Tony Shalhoub's portrayal of Adrian Monk nabbed an Emmy in 2003.
“In the same way Desperate Housewives has taken the serialized drama into comedy, Monk took the detective show and gave it quirky comedy elements,” says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for the Katz Television Media Group.
Audiences have voted with their remotes, as well.
Monk ended its winter season as basic cable's top-rated original scripted series, averaging a 3.9 rating and 4.9 million total viewers.
At one point, USA was sharing Monk with ABC, which had repurposing rights to the dark-horse hit series.
“And doesn't ABC wish it still had it,” says Rick Kushman, TV critic for the The Sacramento Bee. “A show like Monk gives USA some heft. What that show says is, 'Hey, this is a place that actually does quality television.' ” —Linda Moss
FX Networks was searching for a buzz-worthy break-out show when it hit pay dirt with Nip/Tuck, a drama about the private lives and work of two Miami plastic surgeons.
Launched with an unprecedented promotional campaign, the series has become destination TV for many viewers and the highest-rated program in the network's history.
The brainchild of former journalist Ryan Murphy, the show was the No. 1 draw among cable networks for 18-49 year old adults across all time periods in its first season, according to the network. That number that could have been higher if the end of its season had not overlapped with Major League Baseball telecasts.
Last season it lured 3.8 million viewers per episode, including 2.6 million in the 18-49 adult demo, according to the network. Earlier this year it was earned a Golden Globe award as the top drama series. Observers believe it has also led viewers to the network overall, getting them to check out other edgy, quality series on the network such as The Shield and the post 9/11 firefighter drama Rescue Me.
Tom O'Neil, author of a history of the Emmy awards and host of goldderby.com, a media awards archive and predictions site, says Nip/Tuck is a total stylistic package, with the sets, the lighting and the plots all combining for a chic look.
“It does a splendid job of showing how rotten they all are, how fake the profession is, yet it's sexy to watch. But it really drives a scalpel into the ugly guts underneath,” he says. —Linda Haugsted
The O'Reilly Factor
Love or loathe him, here's something from Nielsen Media Research's “no spin zone”: Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor has been the leading talk show in cable news since November 2001, when he surpassed Cable News Network's Larry King Live. During the current season, O'Reilly has drawn an average of 2.4 million viewers between 8-9 p.m. That marks a 21% rise from the same span in 2004.
Guests and strong comments aside, O'Reilly works by combining its host's cult of personality and on-screen histrionics. “As offensive as Bill O'Reilly is politically to many people, it's still a great show to watch because he's a marvelous showman,” says Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys. “He loves to harrumph and carry on like a bug-eyed evangelical preacher. He knows how to whip up a sense of outrage.”
Bill Shine, senior vice president of programming at Fox News, says one of O'Reilly's gifts is the tendency to “ask the questions his viewers are thinking. Bill doesn't ask the obvious: What an author thinks about his new book. He gets his guests to open up.”
Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research at Lifetime Television and co-author of The Complete Guide to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, notes the program's blend of news and opinion. “He has drawn viewers [who aren't attracted to] the seriousness of anchors of yesteryear,” he says. “The show is snappy, back and forth, fast-paced, non-stop. Yes, he gives you a tinge of conservatism, but we're not talking about the survival of democracy here. Yelling is good for ratings.” —Mike Reynolds
The Real World
“This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house and have their lives taped …” So begins every episode of The Real World, the granddaddy of reality TV that was originally intended to be a scripted program.
For 15 seasons, viewers have watched the brainchild of the late Mary-Ellis Bunim and partner Jon Murray. Season 16, filmed in Austin, Texas, recently wrapped. The network says the show continues to perform consistently in the ratings. It is No. 1 in attracting 12 to 34 year olds, who lap up the cast's pool playing, drinking, fighting and hook-ups.
Besides inspiring a genre, The Real World allowed its producers to hone their reality chops. Bunim/Murray Productions has since created Road Rules and Making the Band, The Simple Life (Fox) and Starting Over (syndication).
The show's success may be attributed, in part, to timing. Its created community and forced interaction came along just as teens were withdrawing behind computer screens and game consoles.
“Before reality was on TV it was The Real World on MTV,” says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Media Group. Continued tweaking of the formula keeps the series fresh, he adds. “Every generation sees The Real World as if it was brand new.” —Linda Haugsted
“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea …” those words lead in to the most popular kids-targeted show on the small tube: SpongeBob SquarePants.
Since Nickelodeon debuted the animated series about a neurotic, yellow, square aquatic sponge and his collection of misfit friends in 1999, it has become the most lucrative franchise in the network's 25-year history. Last year alone SpongeBob SquarePants generated $2 billion in merchandising dollars.
“It's a phenomenon; kids and adults love it. It's just silly, and sometimes that's what it should be,” says Bill Carroll, Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming.
It has also become a pop-culture icon, drawing fans and detractors of all ages and political affiliations. Last year, fans stole dozens of SpongeBob SquarePants balloons used to promote the franchise's theatrical movie release from the roofs of Burger Kings around the country.
And this year, the happy-go-lucky character was being assailed by conservative groups for what they see as Spongebob's contribution to the promotion of a homosexual agenda.
Oh, and it's also a big hit on television. SpongeBob SquarePants has been the No. 1 show among kids for 11 consecutive quarters. Through May 1, the show reaches on average 2.2 million households en route to an astounding 2.5 average household rating. —R. Thomas Umstead
Strong Medicine is becoming an even stronger remedy for Lifetime Television. When the Sunday-night franchise embarks on its sixth season June 12, it will be basking in the afterglow of a very solid season five: household ratings edged up 5% over season four. Even more noteworthy, it grew 44% in the women 18-to-34 category and 15% in women 18 to 49 when season five is compared with season four. On average, the series nets some 2.2 million viewers in the 9 p.m. timeslot.
Those numbers come despite some pretty hot competition this past TV season. “I'd be lying if I said we weren't worried about a juggernaut like [ABC's] Desperate Housewives,” says Lifetime executive vice president and general manager Rick Haskins.
“It works for Lifetime because it's about women in strong roles, but it's not women being guys. They're still concerned about their families as well as their work,” says Newsday critic Diane Werts “It's more interpersonal and not as plot-driven.”
Adds Bill Caroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Media Group: “It follows what Lifetime is. Strong female leads enforce the brand.”
Set in the Rittenhouse Women's Health Center, the show has starred Rosa Blasi (Luisa “Lu” Delgado) and Patricia Richardson (Andy Campbell) as strong-willed, but mismatched partners. However, Richardson is departing, and Rick Schroeder effectively replaces her in the upcoming season.
“A lot of viewers have grown up with Rick. He's going to be help the show that way and by adding a man's point of view to the storylines,” says Haskins. —Mike Reynolds
That's So Raven
After Disney Channel's long-running hit series Lizzie McGuire stopped production in 2002, it was unclear whether another original skein would ever have as strong an appeal among the network's coveted tween audience. But That's So Raven has not only matched Lizzie's tween appeal, it has replaced the Hillary Duff-vehicle as the most popular show on the network.
The live-action comedy series, starring Raven-Simoné (formerly of The Cosby Show) as a feisty high school student, has unique appeal to children ages 9 to 14. The show is No. 1 among the network's tween audience, averaging a 4.4 rating through April 2005, according to Disney.
“Raven is one of the many successful live-action sitcoms tailored to kids,” says Ed Martin, programming editor for The Jack Myers Report. “It's filling a void [left] when the broadcast networks decided they were no longer interested in developing situation comedies that might appeal to children.”
But Raven's appeal goes beyond tweens. The show ranked 24th among all basic-cable shows (1.8 household rating), illustrating its universal appeal. “I know adults that watch That's So Raven who don't have kids,” says Seattle Post-Intellegencer TV critic Melanie McFarland. “It has become this weird guilty pleasure kind of experience, and parents don't mind watching it with their kids.” —R. Thomas Umstead
World Poker Tour
The flop. The river. The big blind. Fifth street. Who knew there was such interest out there in learning to “speak poker”? The Travel Channel certainly drew to a royal flush when it picked up the World Poker Tour, leading the way to the highest-rated series in the channel's history.
Some critics say the card-game trend is over-hyped, but that hasn't stopped copycats from jumping on the bandwagon. Poker shows have proliferated across the dial, from Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown to World Poker Tour's own spin-off, the Hollywood Home Game. And ESPN's scripted series Tilt focuses on the poker world.
The gimmick that may have created the genre is the “hole-card cam,” introduced by World Poker Tour, that lets home viewers in on the cards held by each of the players. Expert analysts explain the players' options, so even the casino virgin can tune in and grasp what's going on. Viewers know who's bluffing, who's about to step into a no-win hand, etc. It lends immediacy to what has been a game of limited observer interest.
Pundits are at a loss to explain what makes poker on TV so popular.
“I guess it makes sense to feed the fantasy of people who believe they can bluff their way through a poker tournament in Las Vegas,” says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming, Katz Television Media Group. He says he never thought people would watch card-playing on TV, but wryly adds he didn't think 24-7 weather was viable either. —Linda Haugsted