Summertime has become the prime time for new series launches on cable. And this season, executives from basic to premium channels are turning up the heat with new scripted half-hour sitcoms, one-hour dramas and limited series.
“Even though five years ago there was no real original programming in basic cable, summer has now become a time where the audience expects new stuff,” said Jeff Wachtel, executive vice president of programming at USA Network. “I don’t think it’s anything special about summer. In our new plugged-in, wired culture, people are looking for new things to watch 24/7, 52 weeks a year. There’s no more down time.”
With box office headliners like Glenn Close (FX’s Damages) and Holly Hunter (TNT’s Saving Grace), the offerings this summer are as varied as the networks themselves. From thrillers, dramedies and the supernatural to workplace romps and family sitcoms to animated comedies, such as Comedy Central’s presidential parody Lil’ Bush.
Original scripted shows still only make up roughly 10% of most cable programming slates, with the other 90% of the schedule made up with acquisitions, movies and off-broadcast series. But as networks continue to hone in on their efforts to further brand their identities, scripted series are an important way for programmers to set themselves apart from the pack and build loyal viewers, even for networks like AMC and Showtime, which once relied heavily on movies.
“Originals are a key part of the strategy,” said Charlie Collier, executive vice president and general manager of AMC, which is launching a 13-episode serialized period drama, Mad Men, on July 19 as a way to package its original and theatrical movies.
“We want to produce originals that can go side-by-side with classics like The Godfather and The Untouchables,” he said. “Mad Men will be a compatible series that will draw viewers to the movies.”
Added Robert Greenblatt, Showtime Networks president of entertainment: “There’s always challenges to keep what you’ve got going.” The network will launch drama Meadowlands on June 17, and the quirky comedy Californication, starring David Duchovny bows August 13.
“Even though we’ve been able to attract attention and some buzz on our (original) shows conceptually, it’s always a fight for the audience you have,” Greenblatt said.
With broadcast networks mimicking cable’s summer release model, June, July and August are still key launch periods for most scripted cable shows, allowing channels more breathing room to reach audiences when the programming landscape is not as crowded.
USA will run the most original scripted shows (six) of any single channel this summer. It’s getting a head start May 31 with the much hyped six-hour movie event, Starter Wife, a comedic tryst about life after divorce starring Emmy winner Debra Messing. It will kick off the returns of the network’s long-running hits, The 4400 and Dead Zone set to premiere with seasons four and six, respectively, on June 17.
Executives are teaming the Starter Wife’s June 28 finale with the launch of the channel’s newest original series, Burn Notice. The off-beat thriller stars Jeffrey Donovan (Touching Evil) as a spy who has been given his 'burn notice’ — the terms spies use when they’ve been canned — and sets out to investigate who did it to him and why.
“It’s somewhere in the McGuyver, Miami Vice, James Bond realm of shows with some wonderfully snappy dialogue and lightheartedness,” said Wachtel.
In that way, he said, it’s a perfect companion piece to its hit originals Psych, returning for its second season along with season six of Monk, July 13.
But more than comic banter and wit, these shows have benefited from a “two season” launch model, which is becoming increasingly popular in cable, giving shows more presence throughout the year.
“The landscape is constantly shifting and you just want to make sure you’re shifting with it,” said Mark Stern, executive vice president of original programming at Sci Fi, which split the seasons of Battlestar Galactica and the Stargate series, running half the episodes in the summer and half in January or first quarter.
Sci Fi is also considering a season split for its highest-rated series, Eureka, which returns for its second season in July.
“To a degree, there’s an assumption that summer is just going to be the best place to launch everything,” Stern said. “But you never want to sit back on your laurels and think, 'Oh we’ll just do the same thing we’ve always done.’ ”
Sci Fi is launching only one new scripted series this summer, a reimagination of the science fiction classic Flash Gordon in August. But the channel is hoping the superhero show will add needed muscle to the lineup.
“Basically we’re trying to open up the genre and make it more accessible, that it doesn’t take itself so seriously” Stern said, noting the mainstream appeal of the genre these days. “Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings didn’t become huge just because a bunch of 25-year-old guys living in their basement were watching.”
Lifetime wants its scripted shows to do more than broaden their demo. They need shows to get them back on the map. Over the past seasons, the women’s network hasn’t been able to tap into a successful original show, and with ratings and revenues down last year, the channel is looking to get a big boost with three new series.
“Lifetime is going to have a hit series, and I wanted to increase my odds,” entertainment president Susanne Daniels said. “When you look around the cable landscape and you think about the major channels out there, you’ll find that the audience will identify them most by their hit series.”
She added: “When you think of The Closer, you think TNT. You think of USA, you think Monk. You think Bravo, it’s Project Runway and Queer Eye [for the Straight Guy]. So even though they’re 24/7 channels with programming throughout the day, one series can really elevate a channel. I’m looking for a series to do that for us.”
And so the network marches on into summer with three new series beginning June 3 with Army Wives. Procter & Gamble is sponsoring the commercial-free debut of the ensemble drama starring Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell about military families.
Then on July 15, Lifetime premieres Side Order of Life, starring Marisa Coughlan as a reporter who receives “a wake up call from the universe” before her fateful wedding day, and State of Mind, with actress Lili Taylor as a therapist with a stack of personal problems.
“We have a built-in movie audience that we’re hoping will bring eyeballs to our new series,” Daniels said, plugging the channel’s June original movies Girl, Positive, with Andrea Bowen, Jennie Garth and Law & Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson and Write & Wrong with Kirstie Alley. “It’s really the first thing that she’ll be in since appearing in her fabulous bikini on [The Oprah Winfrey Show].”
TNT and TBS will each have four shows airing this summer. To complement The Closer, which returns for its third season in June, the network is pairing the hit detective series with Heartland, a drama set in the high-tension world of the organ donor business.
In July, Holly Hunter joins the lineup in Saving Grace, as an Oklahoma City detective who gets a new lease on life after a visit from an angel. And in August, the network premieres its six-hour limited series, The Company, starring Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina and Michael Kenton in a gritty CIA drama.
“Heartland is designed to appeal to the adult female of The Closer, while Saving Grace is exploring some new territory for us — it’s going to be TV MA,” said Ken Schwab, senior vice president of programming for TNT and TBS. “Grace may be able to expand the reach of the network, and that’s one of the things that I love about what we’re doing this summer, the variety.”
Certainly TBS has an eclectic collection of shows, from Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, a black multigenerational family comedy premiering in June followed in July with the premiere of The Bill Engvall Show, starring the Blue Collar comic. In August, My Boys returns for the second half of its first season, which launched last winter, featuring a sports-loving girl and her mostly guy friends.
“As you look at the range of what House of Payne will bring, what Engvall will bring, what My Boys brings, there’s definitely a different appeal and they’re placed logically with our acquired series,” Schwab said, noting My Boys is teamed with Friends and Sex in the City. Engvall will run as a companion to Everybody Loves Raymond.
The NBA playoff games will give a boost to House of Payne, which the network bought for an unprecedented 100 guaranteed episodes for $200 million following a 10-city test run which Perry initially financed for $5 million.
“He’s somebody we’ve always had great respect for, and the tests last summer over performed in their time periods all the way around,” said Schwab. “So we have some really high hopes for it here.”