Television viewers looking for quality scripted series have historically turned to the broadcast networks to satisfy their viewing desires — until this year.
In a remarkable rags-to-riches story, the 2001-02 TV season saw cable break broadcast's long-standing grip on the original scripted genre, and steal a significant number of viewers along the way.
Until recently, cable networks have had difficulty getting one or two scripted series to average even a 1.0 household rating. During the 2001-02 campaign, though, nine cable-televised original scripted series averaged a 2.0 rating or better.
Moreover, two series — USA Network's Monk
and The Dead Zone— averaged an impressive 3.0 household rating.
And that doesn't include the long list of critically acclaimed, award-winning and Nielsen-moving dramatic and comedy skeins developed by pay TV programmers Home Box Office and Showtime.
Cable now faces the challenge of living up to rather lofty expectations set by a groundbreaking ratings season that saw the industry establish its viewer dominance over the broadcast networks. No longer can the industry offer bland and inferior original programming fare, which means programmers will have to further loosen their purse strings in order to compete with the broadcast networks for quality scripts.
But the higher bar has already forced several networks to take a step back and re-evaluate their financial commitment to original scripted fare. Others are canceling popular, long-running and expensive series that show even the slightest audience erosion to save costs.
Still, executives predict that networks will begin to develop more original series to rival such broadcast offerings as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
and NYPD Blue
— both in terms of quality and in the ability to attract viewers.
Those series, along with a plethora of strong reality shows, documentaries, original movies and talk shows, have helped to write a positive script for cable as it continues to augment its share of the viewership pie.