With the exception of such signature programs as Comedy Central's The Daily Show
and ESPN's SportsCenter, much of late-night basic cable has hardly been an eye-opening, original experience for viewers.
It's been tough for the industry to break ground against such long-running broadcast staples as local news, off-network syndication and talk shows like Late Show with David Letterman
and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
But lately, basic-cable networks have picked up the late-night pace. From Sept. 24 through Oct. 11 — the first seven weeks of the 2001-2002 TV season — cable scored a 17 percent gain among viewers on weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., according to a Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
Basic cable attracted an average of 22.1 million viewers during that daypart, the CAB estimated — a performance that outpaced the industry's 14 percent growth rate in primetime over that span.
And cable programmers believe there's an opportunity to nab an even larger piece of the late-night pie. Comedy Central, TBS Superstation, USA Network and Cartoon Network are among the channels working to bolster their late-night lineups.
That's no easy task, though, said Entertainment Weekly
critic Bruce Frets. Bigger budgets, stars and young-adult humor have all factored into cable's inability to compete in the talk-show arena, Frets argued. He attributed The Daily Show's
success to its catering to a smarter audience. Ditto for the edgy SportsCenter.
"Beyond the highlights, there are some really smart references flying around on SportsCenter
and it appeals to more than just the hard-core sports fanatics," he said.
averaged a 0.97, or 828,000 homes, for October. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
averaged a 0.6 among adults 18-49 in October at 11 p.m., a 14 percent rise from the prior year.
The current late-night audience is somewhat specific in their viewing habits and well-served by broadcast fare, according to Frets.
"Trying to find something more enticing than what they are currently being offered is where I think cable has failed at this point," he said. "I think cable could probably push the envelope content-wise, but the quality also needs to be maintained."
USA'S NEW GAME PLAN
USA Network hopes to do just that with the Michael Davies (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire)-produced game show Smush. It's scheduled to bow Dec. 3 and will air Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m.
"Smushes" are the result of "smushing" words together from clues. For example: Chinese martial art + Japanese folding bed = Kungfuton.
USA Network president Doug Herzog said Smush
is a way for USA to stake a significant claim to the 11 p.m.-to-midnight time slot.
"We'd like to start developing a position, personality and point-of-view for this network," he said. "We think we can do that through shows like Smush
and the show we're developing behind it with Broadway Video [the production company of Saturday Night Live
creator Lorne Michaels], our topical game show."
The untitled show — which is expected to follow Smush,
beginning in late March or early April — will incorporate talk-show elements with a touch of irreverence, according to Herzog.
"The real question is whether the core USA audience will accept a show like Smush
and whether we can bring other people into the tent," said Herzog, who expects the show to eventually settle into a 1.0 rating range.
"If we were able to achieve something just under that and grow it, we'd be satisfied," he said. "But the goal is a 1.0; that's the benchmark."
Comedy Central general manager Bill Hilary does not agree with the programming strategies that have failed general-entertainment cable networks like USA in the past.
"The problem arises when a cable programmer suddenly thinks they can go from being one thing and suddenly become the wild, young channel of cable networks, which I think is impossible," Hilary said. "Why it works for us is because it's an extension of our brand."
Comedy Central's Sunday late-night programming block, which debuted Aug. 5, begins with a repeat of that week's South Park
episode. Initially, that network staple was followed at 11:30 p.m. by The Chris Wylde Show, since moved to 2:30 a.m. on Sundays, and Insomniac with Dave Attell
— which has been shifted to 11:30 p.m. — performed particularly well for Comedy Central in October, scoring a 24 percent increase among adults 18-24 on Sunday and a 323 percent gain with that group at 12:30 a.m. on Friday.
Comedy Central has renewed the skein, a travelogue of after-hours experiences in cities across the U.S. The first six episodes of its second season will premiere in a plum time slot: Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., following South Park's initial airing. These half-dozen installments will encore at 11:30 p.m. on Sundays, with the remaining four all-new episodes then debuting in that late-night slot.
On Dec. 9, Comedy Central will try to write another late-night chapter with Black Books, a "slightly dark" sitcom set to follow Insomniac
at midnight. The British import centers on the antics of the foul-tempered, eccentric alcoholic bookshop owner Bernard Black (Dylan Morna), his faithful, long-haired assistant Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey) and his best friend Fran (Tamsin Greig).
"I think late-night is a real opportunity for people to try things, but I think it has to be on-brand," said Hilary.
THE COLLEGE CROWD
For its part, TBS Superstation will test the very late-night waters with "Burly TV on TBS," a one-hour block to air Wednesdays at 2 a.m. and Thursdays at 1 a.m.
Burly Bear Network — Lorne Michaels' on-campus channel dedicated to the college crowd — is producing a mix of original programming for TBS, including episodes of Half Baked, a rock-n-roll cooking show; Imposter, a hidden-camera show about human behavior; and Celebrity Highway, which follows the animated hijinks of "vicious" celebrities.
"Burly Bear has a lot of appeal for 18-to-24-year-old college-types, an audience we'd like to reach at that time of night, when where we're not making an enormous investment in it," said senior vice president of programming Bill Cox. "It's a way to not only get people interested in the program, but to also see promos for our other shows."
Cox said TBS airs sports programming in primetime for 11 months out of 12, so it can't guarantee its original shows will start on time.
"And because original programming tends to be expensive, it makes more sense to run syndicated or movie product at that time," said Cox. "If you were to get past the cost factor, you've got a real opportunity."
Production costs are also top-of-mind for Cartoon Network, which jumped into the late-night fray on Sept. 2 with its adult-aimed "Adult Swim" block, which airs Sunday and Thursday from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
"Late-night programming generally doesn't have enough pull or reach to attract a large audience," said Cartoon Network senior vice president of programming and production Mike Lazzo. "If it's an expensive show to produce, it's probably not very cost-effective to take risks in late night where your total audience just isn't as high."
In addition, Lazzo believes that most shows that "go out on a limb" during late night tend not to find an immediate audience.
"One of the things about quirky, off-beat programming is that it takes longer to set a hook against an audience and therefore, you need to spend money for quality in a low-viewership arena," said Lazzo.
The block, which targets 18-to-34-year-old adults, begins with Home Movies.
That series — picked up after a three-episode run on UPN — presents short films that eight-year-old Brendon Small makes of himself, family and his animated friends. It's back in production for 26 additional installments.
At 11 p.m, The Laboratory
— an amalgam of various quarter-hour shows — bubbles onto screens. It includes Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, who defends different cartoon characters in court; Sea Lab 2020; and The Brak Show.
"They are fairly inexpensive, repurposed animation," said Lazzo.
The block concludes with Cowboy Bebop, an action-adventure anime series set in the future, when Earth' s population has migrated into space. It trails the exploits of the ship Bebop
and its bounty-hunting crew.
In drawing more adult viewers, "Adult Swim" — which earned a 0.7 and 0.9 among its target audience on Nov. 11 and Nov. 18, respectively — has also opened Cartoon's doors to different sponsors.
"There's a whole litany of advertisers who will not buy children's dayparts but will buy adults, and we felt we had the numbers, so 'Adult Swim' is our attempt to draw them in," said Lazzo.