More than ever, cable is strutting its stuff this summer,
debuting new series while the broadcasters are airing tired reruns.
But that glut of shows means that cable networks will, in
effect, be competing against each other for what is typically a sparse summer audience.
From the more general-entertainment programmers, such as
USA Network and FX; to the more targeted networks, such as VH1, The Independent Film
Channel and Comedy Central; to the pay services, like Home Box Office and Showtime, cable
is launching a flood of new series from this month through August.
And on Aug. 15, in one of the most dramatic programming
switch-overs and relaunches in recent cable history, Fox Family Channel will unveil an
entire new slate of shows, top to bottom, with kids' fare during the day and
family-oriented shows at night.
Adding to the fight for viewers this summer, the Fox
broadcast network will take a page out of cable's book by airing new episodes of Melrose
Place and, in July, by debuting Fox Files, a news magazine, and the
reality-based Guinness World Records: Primetime.
Cable programmers, while acknowledging that they will face
more competition from their cable brethren this summer, argued that they still have an
edge by premiering new shows now.
They claimed that it's suicide to take on the
"Big Four" broadcast networks in the fall, when they traditionally kick off
their new season with lots of fanfare. And cable doesn't want to go head-to-head with
broadcast during the key sweeps periods, February and May.
That leaves the summer, where there's at least a shot
of cutting through the clutter, cable officials said.
"We always felt that the summer, as well as January,
opened up more runway for us and gave lift to any new launches," said Rod Perth,
president of USA Entertainment and the architect of USA Network's programming
strategy, who just announced that he is leaving USA Networks Inc. in July.
"It's clear that everyone has caught on, and
it's getting more difficult," Perth said, "but it's still not as
difficult as going after viewers in the fall."
Mark Sonnenberg, executive vice president of FX Networks,
added, "It's [the summer] going to get more competitive than it's ever
been. Television is no longer a seasonal business. That said, it's still the best
time [to launch a new show]."
And even though TV-household viewing is usually down during
the summer, several networks that target young audiences, such as Comedy Central and MTV:
Music Television, argued that their viewers -- many on summer vacation from school -- are
actually more available to watch new shows right now.
That's one of the strategic reasons for the timing of
Fox Family's August relaunch, according to Maureen Smith, executive vice president of
Fox Family Worldwide.
Since Fox Family is aimed at children and families,
"kids being out of school in the summer is a great opportunity for us target them, to
get them in the habit of watching us.
"We're picking our opportunities," she
added. "We want to get people into Fox Family Channel prior to the start of the fall
broadcast season, so that people won't be distracted."
Nowadays, cable isn't the only one trying to sidestep
the broadcast clutter in September. United Paramount Network announced last week that it
will premiere its fall shows in October, instead of September.
On the cable front, USA on July 19 will premiere two
hour-long original dramas on Saturday night, The Net and Sins of the City.
USA's sister service, Sci-Fi Channel, has just rolled out new episodes of Sliders,
and it will premiere its anthology series, Welcome to Paradox, July 13.
Among the other new cable offerings for the summer are:
A&E Network will premiere new series Inside
Story June 30 and L.A. Detectives July 3.
IFC's six-part Fishing with John, with
independent filmmaker John Lurie as host, debuts this week.
Cable News Network rolled out its first three NewsStand
news-magazine shows this month.
Comedy Central will create an animation block Monday
nights with its debut of Bob & Margaret June 22. The Upright Citizen's
Brigade will premiere Aug. 12.
Fox News Channel is set to launch Drudge,
with Internet gossip king Matt Drudge, in July, and The Beltway Boys sometime later
FX's Bobcat's Big-Ass Show, a
variety series starring Bobcat Goldthwait, kicked off June 1, while Penn &
Teller's Sin CitySpectacular will launch sometime in mid-August.
HBO has already kicked off its Sex and the City,
which stars Sarah Jessica Parker, while new episodes of its hour-long drama, Oz,
will start running July 13.
Lifetime Television will roll the dice Aug. 18 on
its original sitcoms, Maggie and Oh Baby, as well as on its new hour-long
drama, Any Day Now, starring Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint.
MTV has five new series debuting this summer in
primetime: Celebrity Death Match, Fanatic, Sifl & Olly, BIOrhythm
and Super Adventure Team.
Showtime will premiere two comedy series this summer
that are currently in production: Linc's, an ensemble comedy, starring Pam
Grier; and Rude Awakening, featuring Sherilyn Fenn and Lynn Redgrave.
Romance Classics has on its slate Wednesday Night
with the Clueless Guy, starting July 22, as well as Romancing America and Everyday
Elegance with Colin Cowie, both debuting July 23.
The Learning Channel will kick off its eight-part War
and Civilization series, narrated by Walter Cronkite, Aug. 2.
The Travel Channel will premiere two new program
blocks in July -- "Wildventures" and "Adventure Zone" -- both
featuring several new series.
VH1's Ed Sullivan's Rock 'n'
Roll Classics debuted June 1, and its Rock & Roll Jeopardy will come on
board Aug. 8. VH1 also plans to roll out four or five more series in August.
"Unfortunately, a lot of us are bobbing and weaving
[this summer], and we may bump into each other," Perth said.
Looking on the bright side, he and several officials at
some of the more targeted programming services downplayed the summer competition among
Referring to MTV's program premieres, for example,
Perth said, "A lot of my viewers are not going to care about that," because
USA's demographic is vastly different than that of MTV.
Jeff Gaspin, VH1's senior vice president of
"We can get our share of viewers, even if Lifetime and
TNT [Turner Network Television] are debuting shows," Gaspin said. "We're
niche networks. We're not looking for everybody."
According to his counterpart at MTV, executive vice
president of programming Brian Graden, "We look at our viewers, those 12 to 34, and
we see how they are spending their time and lives and when they're available. So, for
us, the summer makes a lot of sense."
For example, youths are off from school during the summer,
and they can stay up later, so they may be more likely to tune into MTV's "10
Spot" shows, according to Graden.
Comedy Central is in a similar position, according to its
senior vice president of programming, Eileen Katz. "More of our core audience is
available [in the summer]," she said. "They are on vacation. So for our core
audience, HUTS [homes using television] are higher."
Mark Zakarin, Showtime's executive vice president of
original programming, was among those agreeing that the summer is much more competitive
this year. But to try to launch a show in September, when the Big Four are debuting 40 or
more shows, is impossible, he said.
"Your ability to stand out in that crowd is nil,"
In the summer, "the audience is frankly starved for
the new -- there is that rerun fatigue," he said. "And you get attention from
the press. There are a lot of Sunday [newspaper] supplements, and they have nothing to