Basic cable has been gaining on broadcast in ratings for years, but 2008 may be remembered as the year when cable also took the lead in prestige.
While the broadcast networks struggled with development woes and ratings declines caused by the writers’ strike, cable turned out a slew of critically acclaimed shows that helped boost smaller networks’ profiles and, more importantly, build their brands.
Three of the six major Emmy awards this fall went to basic cable programs, a number that was once unthinkable. Virtually every top 20 cable network now has at least one signature original show, from USA’s “Monk” to TNT’s “The Closer” to AMC’s “Mad Men.”
In 2009, those ranks will only grow as cable networks continue to chip away at broadcast’s overall viewer share. Cable is on pace to finish the year with record highs in adults 18-49, and that will increase next year along with the number of original shows.
“Despite the writers’ strike and its aftermath, cable’s development of a lineup of hit series is taking it to new places that were unimaginable 10 years ago,” says TV historian Tim Brooks, a former researcher at Lifetime and USA. “It’s becoming the home not only for scripted drama series, but TBS and others, even Lifetime, are getting into scripted sitcom fare as well.”
Cable networks such as TNT and USA are increasingly positioning themselves as competitors not to each other but to smaller broadcast networks like the CW. USA will actually finish ahead of the latter among adults 18-49 and 25-54 this year, a first for any basic cable network.
Other, more niche networks, like Oxygen and Bravo, have had surprising success with original reality shows. Programs like “Bad Girls Club” and “Project Runway” can compete with broadcast among some specialized demos, all while growing the network’s brand identity, which is key for cable.
“These networks are developing programming that develops a brand and brings viewers back,” Brooks says. “They know the tone and type of programming they are getting from them. A Lifetime viewer does not want to have a program on that they’d be ashamed if their daughter walked into the room, but MTV does want that programming.”
Cable has also seen its profile rise through an increase in major sporting events carriage. The British Open moves to ESPN next year without a live broadcast presence, and soon the Bowl Championship Series will also go from broadcast to cable.
That comes after Major League Baseball shifted one of its divisional series to cable last year and the NFL Network began airing a series of Thursday games two years ago.
The one area where cable is still struggling against broadcast is online, where networks have not been as quick to make their top shows available for download. One of cable’s priorities in the coming year will be monetizing its shows online, following years of uncertainty over how to do so.
Viacom famously sued YouTube for allegedly posting unauthorized clips of its shows and only recently has begun to promote official version of viral hits like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.”
Meanwhile, broadcast has had huge success in this area, with some shows now having been available online for several years and the once-guffawed-at Hulu.com, a joint venture between NBC Universal and News Corp., seeing huge spikes in traffic.
“Most networks understand how important online is becoming after being very cautious about it in years past,” Brooks says. “The way of promoting shows by spreading programming around fairly freely on internet platforms is a new model, and they have to find a way to monetize it. That is essential.”
By Tony Fitzgerald
Dec 17, 2008