Cable Networks Gain Viewers with Edgy Shows

Broadcast television networks are built on pulling in big numbers of viewers. But basic cable channels such as TNT, FX and USA are enjoying increasing success with edgier shows. The cable networks are able to succeed with smaller viewership numbers than their broadcast counterparts.

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Millions, of course, don't bother with network TV. Last Friday, five million people saw the finale of Monk, which is on the USA Cable Network, and over the summer, The Closer drew eight million to TNT.

NPR's Nova Safo reports on low-profile channels that now draw big audiences.

NOVA SAFO: A couple of years ago, USA Network President Bonnie Hammer set out to revamp the channel. She looked at audience research. People liked the reruns of TV movies, but beyond that, they didn't know what the USA Network was about.

Ms. BONNIE HAMMER (President, USA Network): It was like an old, comfortable shoe. Now that's great, because you always want a comfortable pair of shoes to walk in. But every now and then you want a Manolo. And so, we decided that we wanted to give them a safe and comfortable place to come, but that wasn't always as predictable, that was a bit more fun and had a little bit more sass to it.

SAFO: The result - more viewers. Just between last summer and this one, USA says its prime time audience grew by about 25 percent. As USA has evolved, so have its competitors: TNT and FX. These channels are not broadcast networks in size and scope, but their vision for themselves is more inclusive than niche channels such as Discovery, Animal Planet, or Court TV.

Unlike those niche channels, you really wouldn't know what TNT is, for example, unless TNT told you. And that's what the mini networks have done, creating their own identities and original shows to give you a reason to tune in.

(Soundbite of The Closer)

Ms. KYRA SEDGWICK (Actress): (as Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson) Lieutenant Provenza, are you eating chocolate in here?

SAFO: A reason like TNT's, The Closer, a police drama about a quirky detective played by Kyra Sedgwick.

Ms. SEDGWICK: (as Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson) I thought we agreed to keep snacks with processed sugar out of the murder room. If y'all have to have candy, please do so in the hallways and electronics room.

SAFO: The Closer has paid off for TNT. It's the number one series among cable channels that run commercial advertising. Turner Broadcasting, of which TNT is a part, saw an 11 percent increase in advertising sales over the past two summers.

Phil Rosenthal, media columnist for the Chicago Tribune, says shows on TNT, FX, and USA, cut through the competitive clutter.

Mr. PHIL ROSENTHAL (Media Columnist, Chicago Tribune): They're a little edgier than what you see on broadcast TV sometimes, or they're just a different kind of storytelling.

SAFO: Joanne Weintraub, TV critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, agrees. She says creating buzz worthy programs means taking risks. But cable channels such as TNT can do that because they operate on a smaller scale than their broadcast counterparts.

Ms. JOANNE WEINTRAUB (TV Critic, Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee): And because five million viewers for them is a great number, where five million viewers will get you kicked off NBC. They can take more chances. They can be more focused.

SAFO: The cable channels take chances strategically, though, premiering the programs over the summer, when the big networks are mostly showing reruns. This summer, for example, the USA Network has seen promising ratings for the new series Psych, about another quirky detective. This one's a con artist.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character in Psych) Sir, can I help you?

Mr. JAMES RODAY (Actor): (as Shawn Spencer) Yeah. Uh, I'm Shawn Spencer, Psychic, SBPD. Just need a moment.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character in Psych) A psychic?

Mr. RODAY: (as Shawn Spencer) Um hmm.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character in Psych) Welcome!

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character in Psych) You're a psychic, like Professor X?

Mr. RODAY: (as Shawn Spencer) Professor X is a telepath, not a psychic. Ahh, but I do have telepathic tendencies.

SAFO: Psych is designed to complement USA's long-running hit, Monk, centered around yet another quirky detective. The similarities between the shows are no accident. All the series on USA relate to a grander image for the network as the place for stories with elements of comedy or fantasy.

The same thing is true at TNT. The channel's head of original programming, Michael Wright, says TNT series' and its brand work together.

Mr. MICHAEL WRIGHT (TNT's Head of Original Programming): When we choose programming, I mean when we develop it, when we produce it, that's always, not even in the back of our mind, its in the front of our mind that this be in service to that brand.

SAFO: FX brands itself too, focusing on dark and realistic fare, such as its ultra gritty cop series, The Shield.

Branding has worked well enough for the cable channels that even a new broadcast network launching this fall is using the strategy. The CW is marketing itself as the place for young people.

Meanwhile, cable's niche channels are vying for attention too, by producing more of their own programming. Everything from Trick my Truck, about big rig makeovers on CMT - that's Country Music Television - to the new daily show about needlecrafts on the Do It Yourself Network.

Mr. JOHN LANDGRAF (President and General Manager, FX Networks): I just can't imagine that the American public can keep track of 60 channels that are premiering original programming.

SAFO: John Landgraf is president and general manager of FX. He says there's trouble ahead.

Mr. LANDGRAF: There's going to be continued fracturing in the marketplace. That means the audience will be spread out among more and more options.

SAFO: Landgraf has a word for what will happen next. Bloodbath. He says even successful returning programs will suffer.

Mr. LANDGRAF: Eventually it'll become so competitive that everybody's batting average will go down. There will always be hits. The question will be how profitable is it to make original scripted series' on average, and I think that profitability will go down a little bit.

SAFO: Executives at USA and TNT say their philosophy is, put on good programming and the audience will come.

But, if that's not enough, they're also getting more creative in marketing. Landgraf says FX used the popular social networking site MySpace to promote its season finale of Nip/Tuck, which involved the unmasking of a gruesome serial killer named The Carver.

Mr. LANDGRAF: We did a series of blogs and video blogs, and The Carver began communicating weeks before his identity was revealed on the air. And there were clues laced in there about who he was. And that was an extremely successful promotion.

SAFO: How successful? That last episode of Nip/Tuck had the highest ratings of any basic cable series last year among the coveted 18 to 49 demographic. The series starts up again tonight as FX and the other cable channels move closer to a year-round schedule of new shows, a shot across the bow of their broadcast counterparts.

Nova Safo, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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