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Cable channels target broadcasters' fall domain

"7th Heaven" creator Brenda Hampton knows the power of broadcast television. But she got a lesson in cable's potency last month.
/ Source: Reuters

"7th Heaven" creator Brenda Hampton knows the power of broadcast television. But she got a lesson in cable's potency last month as well.

When the midseason finale of her latest creation, ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," beat the second episode of the CW's much-hyped "90210" on Sept. 9 in the same time slot among total viewers and some key demos, Hampton had an ulterior motive for rejoicing.

"I did shop the show to the broadcast networks, including the CW, so this kind of success is sweet," she says.

The cable networks are making their biggest push yet into fall with original scripted programming, but whether they can hold their own against the broadcasters remains to be seen.

Cable networks including FX, USA and TNT have been making hay for some time about their ability to go head-to-head with the broadcasters' original programming. After proving that people will tune in to originals in the summer and going outside their comfort zone to premiere new series outside of the hottest months of the year -- and dominating the Emmy Awards to boot -- they have now set their sights on conquering fall.

They are launching more scripted shows than ever that face direct competition from the premiere of broadcasters' heavily promoted new season, and are doing so with some of the very same producers and writers who created the broadcast hits of yore, including Hampton.

So far, the result seems to be a mixed bag.

'The death grip' is brokenTNT set records with its premiere of "Raising the Bar" on Sept. 1 with 7.7 million viewers, but the legal drama has since dipped to 2.9 million, after losing its lead-in of fresh episodes of "The Closer" and coming up against broadcast premieres and ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

It's a hit that co-creator Steven Bochco, the mastermind behind broadcast classics including "NYPD Blue," had expected. He argues that cable is still a legitimate force when competing with the broadcasters in the drama arena.

"The death grip that broadcast had on viewers is broken," he says. "There are a lot of options out there, and people are loyal to the shows they like. The broadcast networks can't lay claim to the kind of exclusivity that they used to."

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In September alone, the Big Four have seen their share of households drop 31% from the same month last year, to 20.8, while cable has inched up 3% to 62.7.

FX has long touted its success outside of summer with "Nip/Tuck" and "The Shield," but "Sons of Anarchy" has had a modestly rated run so far since its Sept. 3 series debut. After five weeks, the show was given a second-season pickup, while "Raising the Bar" got a Season 2 greenlight only three episodes into its run; "Secret Life's" run was extended by 13 episodes in July, three weeks after its premiere.

The next test of cable's ability to compete with the fall season comes Friday night, when USA premieres its new series "The Starter Wife." The show got off to a good start last year when it aired as a miniseries, but that was over the summer. Still, writer/exec producers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott aren't worried.

The Hollywood writers strike might have had something to do with the scheduling, McGibbon admits. But when they found out USA was debuting the show in October, she adds, "It was a giant 'Wow! That's a lot of faith they're having in us.' I was excited that they thought we could play with the big boys."

Adds Parriott: "I feel like there isn't any other show like ours anywhere right now, so I don't consider it competition. I think there's plenty of audience for everybody."