After a ratings-record-breaking summer, cable is hoping some of the heat will continue into the fall.
Cable networks just scored a 10th-straight summer win over their broadcast rivals in household share, and many think the medium can do just as well with scripted fare in the cooler months — despite the seasonal gale of promotions for new broadcast shows.
Cable networks are looking to build on the momentum gained with last season's slew of series launches in September, October and November, now that production schedules have bounced back from last year's Writers Guild of America strike. The fallout held up production and forced programmers to delay several new shows until the fall, which is traditionally broadcast's time to shine.
“We generally do 13-week pieces that fit well into the calendar quarters,” said HBO executive vice president of programming Dave Baldwin. This year, the premium programmer unveils Bored to Death, a new comedy series about a neurotic writer and mystery fan-turned-private eye in New York (see Review, page 14), as well as the seventh season of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm on Sept. 20.
HBO first tested the autumn-launch waters about a decade ago with its acclaimed comedy The Larry Sanders Show. It subsequently churned out a number of water-cooler series in the fall such as Curb, Carnivale,Extras and True Blood.
Similarly, premium programmer Showtime will kick off season four of its successful series Dexter and the third season of Californication on Sept. 27.
The programming team at Starz has spent the past year retooling its signature series Crash, which returns Sept. 18. One of the advantages a premium channel like Starz has “is the ability to incubate a show,” senior vice president of network operations Jonathan Shair said.
For basic-cable programmers, the fall has become a way “to build up the expectation that we're going to be in originals as much as possible throughout the year,” said SyFy president Dave Howe.
SyFy, which continues a tradition of autumn launches with the premieres of Sanctuary (Oct. 9) and Stargate Universe (Oct. 2), is focusing its efforts on Friday nights, typically not a big night for the broadcast networks.
ABC Family went with Monday nights for the recent return of Greek and the Sept. 14 return of Lincoln Heights. “We have got established brands that have passionate audiences season after season, so we're very confident people will come back for those shows, especially when you've established a night for specific programming,” said ABC Family president Paul Lee.
Lifetime is premiering its 12-episode multicamera comedy Sherri, starring The View's Sherri Shepherd, on Oct. 5 as a companion anchor to the second season of Rita Rocks, which has a 20-episode order. The comedy block will launch in the primetime cable slot at 7 p.m. Eastern, one hour earlier than broadcast primetime, and then will be stripped throughout the week. The shows will then move to their regular time period at 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., respectively.
“We feel at 10 o'clock that networks don't play in that arena in comedy,” said Lifetime executive vice president of entertainment JoAnn Alfano. “A female audience that is either working late and coming home late or after putting their kids to bed become available later in the evening, and comedy sometimes is like the greatest escape before you go to bed.”
For series creators, fall brings increased media interest. “It's the TV Guide special fall preview issue, and there's just a lot more attention to TV shows overall,” said Stan Zimmerman, who is co-creator and executive producer of Rita Rocks with James Berg.
While cable networks are gaining ground with viewers, “audiences are losing faith in broadcasters' ability to produce compelling dramas that people want to return to week after week,” said Kurt Sutter, creator and executive producer of the FX drama Sons of Anarchy.
“Broadcasters can make more noise, so we combat that by making shows that are very different,” said FX president and general manager John Landgraf, whose network entered the fall fray in 2005 with the third season of Nip/Tuck. “It seemed like a risk, but the show grew.”
The experiment paid off, and paved the way for other titles, including last season's debut of Sons of Anarchy (which roared out of the gate for season two Sept. 8 with 4.29 million total viewers and 3.03 million adults 18-49, both all-time highs) and the third season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which starts season four on Sept. 17).
“When we moved Sunny to the fall in mid-September 2007, there was a 16% increase in adults 18 to 49, but [there was] a whopping 35% increase in 18 to 39 in Sunny in season three vs. season two,” Landgraf said. “We noticed that we really provided an alternative to the broadcast networks for younger viewers who are less broadcast-centric and more adventuresome.”
USA Network enjoyed a record-setting summer, thanks in part to returning players In Plain Sight, Monk, Psych, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Burn Notice as well as freshman hit Royal Pains, which was the top-rated ad-supported cable series of the season. Now USA president Bonnie Hammer is hoping White Collar, which premieres in October, will be a perfect fit for fall.
“We've gotten to the point where we know our brand, we know who our viewers are, we know how to expand beyond our core,” Hammer said, “and God knows you can never predict, but in our heart and in our gut we think we've hit a sweet spot with White Collar; something that is fun, entertaining escapism that is broad and young at the same time with characters that have amazing chemistry that we honestly believe that can compete with anything else out there.” (See related story.)
Of course, there are some cable networks that would prefer to steer clear of the fall-season scrum, when broadcasters promote their new shows relentlessly.
“Why go into the teeth of a billion-dollar marketing campaign that's put up for the broadcast premieres,” said TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies executive vice president and head of programming Michael Wright, who noted a similar aversion to the February and May sweeps periods. “It's also not an ideal place for us to be.”
Instead, TNT will premiere its off-summer drama, Men of a Certain Age, on Dec. 8. “There's a lot of good television out there right now,” Wright said. “It would kind of make sense for you to launch that show when you're not competing for attention with a gajillion other shows.”