Cable steals the summer

In an expanding TV universe, network reruns face stiff competition.

Did you catch that new series on USA Network this past Sunday, "GvsE?" How about the quirky new Nickelodeon kids show that started Saturday, "SpongeBob SquarePants?" Or the kickoff of the new season of HBO's "Oz" 10 days ago?

If you're over 30, you might be excused for thinking, "Hey, has the fall season started?" But if you're a younger viewer, the idea of new shows all year round probably feels pretty normal. No more see-you-in-September for favorite shows after they go off the air in May, because they don't.

Actually, chances are you're not paying close attention to whether the show is on cable or network television. That's because the quickly expanding cable universe is redefining how people watch TV, say media experts. Viewers are tuning into shows rather than networks, and in a satellite and 500-channel-cable world, they're beginning to expect fresh programs all the time.

Summer has become a key time for cable TV. Unleashing first-run movies, series, and specials in June, July, and August, when networks are clogged with reruns, has been cable's ace in the hole and one of the single most important forces in speeding up the changes wrought by the quickly expanding cable universe. "Summer is our most important season," says Jeff Bewkes, chairman of HBO, because "[we] put on something good in the summer when we think we can get it seen. As people watch [HBO], hopefully they stay with the variety of what we've got."

The premium channel has two highly rated series, "Oz" and "Sex and the City." Both used the summer launch pad to garner the high profile that has gained them a national fan base. Mr. Bewkes sums up the impact of the cable industry's strategy: "Each fall is weaker for the networks."

Numbers from this past season underscore this trend. In the summer of 1998, for the first time, nearly 40 million viewers watched cable, some 3 million more viewers than the combined six broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WB, UPN). For the 1998-99 season, cable viewership was up by 11 percent compared with the past year, while the networks were down 6 percent.

While network executives are quick to point out that those figures represent the entire cable viewership, not one channel versus one network, even that point is crumbling, if only on a small scale.

"We are the first basic cable channel to outperform a broadcast network, as we've done in the past two quarters," says Stephen Chao, president of programming and marketing at USA Networks, home of the new series "GvsE." The network Mr. Chao refers to is the underdog UPN. It's in sixth place overall, but the larger reality remains: Cable is steadily encroaching on the old network preserves.

"Every year, no matter what the networks do, as more cable comes on the air, the TV universe is getting more competitive," says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular TV at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.

A return to the old days of a 90 percent audience share for the networks is an impossible dream, says the media observer. Networks would be better advised to adapt rather than fight the changes, he says.

"Once they've made that decision to recognize that reality, there wouldn't be the need to keep responding to the fact of the audience going down," he says. Rather, they could focus on what he calls "the integrity of the broadcast franchise" as a way to face the cable challenge. He suggests this would include a "department-store approach" - pleasing broad audiences with some programming, while retaining niche audiences with high-quality dramas. Year-round programming would be a must.

While the major networks have made the occasional stab at fighting back during the hot months with original programs, Thompson points out that the inertia of these 60-year-old institutions means that change comes slowly.

"I think we're always trying to do something different," said Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment, addressing a roomful of TV critics in January. She pointed to the midseason pickup of two new comedies, "It's Like ... You Know" and "Norm," as an example. But with the exception of a few summer launches over the years (CBS's "Northern Exposure" debuted in the summer), the networks continue to operate within the old model.

The nine-month season dates back to the days of live TV, when performers expected summers off, and the networks couldn't afford a year-round schedule. Gradually, relations with advertisers and more than 200 local affiliates have grown up to reflect that model.

"It's a complex industry. When you're Van Gogh, and you want to paint in a different style, you go to the country and do it," says Thompson, adding with a laugh, "When you're a network executive, and you want to do something different, it's much more complicated."

Some suggest, la Mark Twain, that news of the network broadcasters' demise is premature. Pointing out that while the overall network audience reach may hover around 50 percent, down from the 90-percent-plus of a decade ago, "the fact of the matter is, that's a pretty healthy reach, and nobody else comes close," says Alan Wurtzel, former senior vice president of media development, brand management, and research at ABC.

But every summer of new shows on cable ups the ante for the networks.

"Cable is changing all the rules," says media guru Thompson. And whenever it does something innovative and successful, and the networks hold onto their old ways, "it just confirms that the network era, as we know it, is history."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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