Cable's conquest

Basic and pay channels dominate the midseason arena

by Diane Werts

18 January 2010


Network shmetwork — we got cable!

That’s where the action is now — as in now, this midseason, with a dozen new dramas and comedies premiering in coming weeks (and even more new-season returnees).

But cable is also where the action is now when it comes to the big picture in scripted TV. Nonbroadcast channels now host original series throughout the prime-time schedule. It’s only been a decade since “The Sopranos” proved premium cable meant business in originals, and just eight years since “The Shield” did it for basic cable. Yet despite being available to tens of millions fewer homes, basic cable mainstays such as TNT’s “The Closer” and USA’s “Burn Notice” now draw bigger audiences than all but broadcast’s biggest hits.

USA Network boasts this month that it has four weekly nights of at least one original series (Monday-Thursday, counting Monday’s WWE wrestling). FX now runs acclaimed adult shows year-round, with Jan. 25’s return of “Damages,” giving it three nights weekly (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday). TNT presents a half-dozen of its own dramas, including just-back “Leverage,” and even AMC has award-winners such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

And let’s not forget Syfy, which this week debuts the near-future rivalries of “Caprica” (Friday, 9-11 p.m.), a topical society filled with high-tech innovation — and emotional peril. Eric Stoltz stars as an inventor whose creations may include “virtual” people.

“This year we’re going to have eight original series,” says Syfy president Dave Howe, “which I suspect is more than any other basic cabler.” Syfy is a scripted veteran with a 10-year track record from “Farscape” to “Battlestar Galactica” to “Eureka” to last summer’s freshman hit “Warehouse 13.”

Scripted shows get cablers more critical notice than cheaper, unscripted shows. But they get more advertiser attention, too. Howe says, “There’s still a cachet around scripted compared to reality,” a genre where many advertisers can be skittish about low production values and controversial behavior. (“Caprica” premieres with limited commercial interruption, thanks to a “presenting sponsorship” deal with Verizon Wireless.)

Of course, that’s not an issue in ad-free premium cable, where subscribers pay the freight. But originals create interest and identity here, too. HBO could divide its history into before “The Sopranos” and after, while Showtime was largely buzzless before the likes of “Queer as Folk” and “Dexter.” By spring, original drama/comedy will be airing three nights a week on both HBO (Sunday, Tuesday, Friday) and Showtime (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday).

Joining the fray is No. 3 premium Starz. Long focused on theatrical films, the channel started getting serious about series in 2008 with “Crash,” the Dennis Hopper drama based on the Oscar-winning film. Last year, its Hollywood-set comedy “Party Down” became a cult favorite.

This week, Starz debuts the audacious mold-breaker “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” (Friday at 10 p.m.; the premiere also airs at the same time on sister channel Encore), an in-your-face assault of explicit graphic-novel visuals, with more blood, sex and full-frontal nudity than series TV has ever seen. Yet this gladiators tale is also a rich and mature saga of tested relationships, twisted politics and even relevant economic woes. Its signature blend of computer-imaged backgrounds and sweeping New Zealand locations looks like no other show.

“We want to do series that fit in with our movies, that are more cinematic in nature,” says Stephan Shelanski, programming chief at Starz Entertainment. Even his job title, referencing a corporate structure rather than a channel, hints why scripted series are becoming more common on more channels.

And just as cablers are making moves into broadcasters’ scripted territory, NBC and other networks are taking a trick or two from cable. Have you noticed how “season” premieres in cable often happen twice a year? This month’s much-hyped returns on USA — “White Collar” (starting Tuesday at 10 p.m.), “Burn Notice” (Thursday at 10p.m.), “Psych” (Jan. 27 at 10 p.m.) — are actually continuations of “new” seasons started last year.

NBC similarly touted its “Heroes” return from holiday hiatus this month. ABC will promote “spring seasons” of fall arrivals “Flash Forward” (March 18) and “V” (March 30). Ditto on The CW for “Gossip Girl” (March 8).

“I think the differentiation between broadcast and cable is over,” Syfy’s Howe says. “You surf up and down, and there’s original scripted and reality on pretty much every network. The younger viewer, in particular, doesn’t give a damn what network they’re watching.”

//Mixed media