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."
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.
"A lot of the stuff [at USA] is more approachable and mainstream than some of their cable competitors," says Tom Weeks, a senior VP at ad-buyer affiliate Starcom Entertainment, noting that their more old-school approach has made the channel "a destination brand." For example, Burn Notice, the channel's most successful recent launch about an ex-CIA agent, was first pitched as a dark drama set in New Jersey. USA execs picked up the show, but changed the setting to sunny Miami and gave it a more affable approach. Burn Notice's creator and executive producer Matt Nix admits that the changes made for a better show.
Similarly, Psych, a series that focuses on a Santa Barbara private investigator who pretends to be psychic, stars two attractive young actors (James Roday and Dule Hill), but their antics are far more reminiscent of Columbo than CSI. Some USA shows (like Monk and Psych) are more family-friendly than others, but almost all have less objectionable content than broadcast's primetime dramas.
NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin claims such programming provides a clear option for audiences tiring of gore and grit, saying it "goes perfectly with the economy and the psyche of the country. So many people we know are living in a very difficult time period and it's hard to escape when the television shows you're watching are more depressing than the life you're living."
Gaspin's boss, NBC Universal's cable-entertainment chief, Bonnie Hammer, believes that kind of light escapism is exactly what's drawing viewers away from the big four networks. Audiences, she says, "can go to sleep at 11:00 without taking out a razor blade, and with a smile on their face."
Monk's creator, Andy Breckman admits that the show is in many ways "very retro. The pace of the show is slower than most other shows, the humor is quirkier and a little more gentle," but claims he wears the distinction as "a badge of honor." Given their latest launches, it looks like other cable channels would like to share that badge.
Logging its best month in its history, SyFy was the third most-watched cable channel for scripted programming in the month of July thanks to lighthearted, inoffensive series like Eureka and the recently-debuted Warehouse 13. TNT, which cut its teeth with serious fare like The Closer and Saving Gracing, added Leverage, a fun A-Team-esque caper show, to its lineup this summer. Reports are that the program, which has almost nothing that would make sensitive viewers cringe, has come on strong at the end of its freshman season, performing particularly well in key demographics.
And in the ultimate irony, there are some indications that the networks are finally taking notice and attempting to mimic cable's formula. One of the most successful new series of the broadcast network's 2008-2009 season was a CBS offering, The Mentalist, a wry drama about a con-man-turned-detective that shares similar plot lines and comedic devices with both Monk and Psych. Given such seismic shifts in the television landscape, it's little wonder The New York Times declared Monk "one of the most influential series of the last decade."