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Gavin Bond/USA

Keeping it scripted

Television | With reality shows ruling the four big broadcast networks, cable has become a home for high-quality dramedies

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

In 2001, when actor Tony Shalhoub was considering the titular role on USA channel's original, hour-long dramedy Monk, well-meaning colleagues warned him against "slumming" on basic cable. After all, the showbiz veteran had hit network shows like Wings as well as plenty of big screen credits to his name. Wisely, he decided to shun their advice, telling USA Today that when considering his next project, content was more important to him than venue: "I figured why not be a bigger fish in a smaller pond and turn it into a bigger pond?"

That was eight years ago. Now in its final season, the series about an obsessive-compulsive San Francisco detective has helped expand the television pond in ways its star may never have imagined. A quick glance at the 2009 Emmy nominations reveals categories littered with basic cable representatives. And the Nielsen ratings in recent weeks reveal cable shows beating the broadcast competition even in primetime hours. No matter how you slice it-viewership, ad revenue, or critical accolades-there's significant cachet in cable these days.

"The broadcast networks are our competition," says Steve Koonin, president of TNT, which claims cable's number one scripted show, crime drama The Closer. "We believe we're a great substitute for advertisers. Broadcast has value, but it's not the only game in town."

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If Koonin's boast is credible (and The Closer's average 8 million viewers suggest that it is), TNT's not alone in it. Across the board, cable executives say the glut of reality-programming on broadcast has left a wide-open field for engaging characters and storylines that cable is scrambling to fill. "I do think that the fact that the broadcast networks are turning over more of their schedules to unscripted programming is an opportunity for us," says Michael Wright, head of programming for TNT and TBS.

Bob DeBitetto, president-general manager of A&E, which has found a winner in the addiction-intervention drama The Cleaner, concurs, saying, "In a difficult media marketplace, cable networks like ours can grow because we have the so-called 'broadcast replacement programming'-the high-quality, scripted environment that blue-chip clients want, and more and more are finding on cable."

Indeed, from Army Wives on Lifetime to Eureka on the newly renamed SyFy, nearly every ad-supported cable network (as opposed to subscriber­supported cable networks like HBO and Showtime) that doesn't have a specialty focus is rolling out original series. And while the old cable model called for premiering shows in the summer when the big four broadcasters (FOX, NBC, ABC, and CBS) offered little beyond reruns and reality, cable executives say such fear of direct competition is fading, and they're using new branding to highlight it. Witness USA's tagline: "Characters Welcome"; TNT's: "We Know Drama"; and AMC's: "Story Matters Here." All present brash challenges to their bigger brothers.

Jeff Wachtel, president of original programming for USA, notes that his network is increasingly comfortable going head to head with the major networks, telling Advertising Age, "When we started doing original programming seven years ago, it was, 'Oh, you can't compete with the broadcast networks.' Then when we started to move out of summer, it was, 'Oh, you can't compete with broadcast in season.' But we were doing it on Friday, which was a little less competitive. Then with Burn Notice we took on Thursday night at 10 p.m., and with Law and Order: Criminal Intent we went to Sundays."

But it's not just viewership giving cable channels something to crow about. The seeming lack of quality scripted shows in the network lineup is breaking down the respect barrier as well. In 2008 FX's Damages and AMC's Mad Men made history as the first basic cable programs nominated for "Best Series" Emmys, and cable headliners like Shalhoub and Kyra Sedgwick of The Closer have been mainstays of Emmy's acting categories the last few years.

"The notion that somehow cable series are lower budget or lower quality is just not true anymore," says TNT's Wright. "There has been real progress from six or seven years ago, when a cable series was considered somehow secondary, to today when cable means prestigious. It's been an amazing transformation."

Regarding said transformation, perhaps no other cable channel has matched the achievements of USA. Not only is it the most-watched cable network three years running, it even has broadcast warming its leftovers. Monk eventually proved so popular, ABC, which had at one time passed on a chance to develop the show, began airing it in reruns, becoming the first major network to borrow from cable. That landmark made Monk, according to one USA exec, "the quintessential show for our brand." It provided the formula that USA's other original programming has been able to follow to similar success. Namely, old-fashioned storytelling plus a lighthearted tone equals big audiences.

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