It's hard to remember that just a few short summers ago, the TV landscape was as stale as last year's lunchbox, full of reruns and cartoons.
Then a little snack called "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" popped up and suddenly summer became a candy box for the networks - but only for reality shows. It has fallen to broadcasting's poor cousin, basic cable, to launch summertime versions of the kind of scripted shows that have been the networks' bread and butter for years.
From June to August, cable networks launched more than a half-dozen scripted dramas to high ratings and critical kudos. And we're not talking about just the next installment in the "Star Trek" franchise or the women-in-peril flicks they've done to death over the years. These are high-gloss, network-quality dramas, chock-full of stars as well as top writing and producing talent.
They also contributed to another cable first: Basic cable drew 55 percent of the summer audience, versus 38 percent for the networks, according to the Cable Television Advertising Bureau.
"It's a huge problem for the network business," says Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television. "It just raises the bar of what we have to do."
Some of the marquee names that have been attracted to basic cable include British film actress Joely Richardson ("Nip/Tuck," F/X) and Tom Berenger ("The Peacemakers," USA).
"The characters in these stories have such depth and distinction," says Amanda Lotz, assistant communications professor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. "These alone would make these shows stand out, no matter where they were."
Timing also undoubtedly helped. "Summertime's always been a time of opportunity for cable," from the dawn of the industry, says Doug Herzog, president of USA Network. But as channels continue to proliferate, competition has gotten fiercer. Cable networks now must find prestigious programs to define themselves from the pack - and from the broadcast networks. "We're taking a little different tack: As they've chased the reality thing, we're going after [viewers] with quality scripted programming."
The tactic is paying off. Last summer, USA premièred both "Dead Zone" and "Monk." Tony Shalhoub is up for an Emmy later this month for playing "the defective detective," and last fall ABC picked up the show to run during the network's fall season. "The Dead Zone" première remains the highest-rated original dramatic series debut in the history of basic cable.
Broadcast network executives are fond of pointing to the limitations imposed by their standards-and-practices departments, saying summer audiences want extremes they can't provide.
But sex-drenched shows such as "Temptation Island" and this spring's violent Mexican mob drama, "Kingpin" on NBC, make that position tough to defend. And if "Monk'" can move to a network, it can't be doing anything the standards-and-practices folks wouldn't like. (Underlining the point, another basic-cable summer hit, the reality show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," made the same move from Bravo to NBC this summer.)
"That argument about cable being able to push boundaries is a straw dog," says Dr. Lotz. "What makes these new shows phenomenally rich doesn't come from the gore or sex, it comes from characterization, from the stories they're telling."
The power of the programming opportunity has been so profound, that even unlikely networks like ESPN are trying it out.
"Playmakers," a new, hour-long drama, is a sudsy look at the private lives of athletes. ESPN executives say the network has "capped out" when it comes to attracting hard-core sports fans. Drama was an obvious new direction.
"For ESPN to evolve, for us to reach a new level," says Mark Shapiro, executive vice president; "we're going to have to commandeer those broad, casual sports fans who are interested in the human emotion that drama brings to the table."
Television producers have gotten on board, happy to work for cable networks with something to prove. "What we like about dealing with the cable networks is the passion that they show for the particular programs from a promotional standpoint," says Steve Mosko, president of Columbia Tri-Star Television. "They tend to stick with the shows over a period of time, finding ways to make them work."
Cable channels such as Lifetime or TNT can do this, he says, because they tend to have just a few pups in the litter. Remember the promotional blitz that turned the tiny ratings producer, HBO's "Sex and the City," into a pop-culture phenomenon? "When they get behind a show," says Mr. Mosko, "they really get behind it."
But, it should be said, a hit on cable is not exactly the same as a hit on a broadcast network.
"The cable companies have the luxury of trying to appeal to a niche audience," says Mr. Newman, "where a 1 or 1.2 rating can be considered a success. That's not the network business."
And cable networks have the option of rerunning their shows through their weekly schedules, picking up ratings as they go. "One thing about a show that might air on a network," says Mosko, "if you miss the night ... you've lost it for a week."
Despite the success of summer-launched series such as "Monk" and "Nip/Tuck," the economics still don't make sense for a network, says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker.
"Would I love to have original scripted programming this summer? Yeah, I think it would be a great goal," says Mr. Zucker. However, given the fact that network shows with 10 times the ratings of a "Monk" are routinely canceled for underperformance, "we're not convinced that the audience is ready for that yet."
They may have to become convinced, and sooner rather than later. "These cable companies, when they accumulate their ratings," says Newman, "are becoming a major competitor to network prime-time shows."
Summer reality programs will not be enough to stave off the challenge from these shows, he says. "As your audience develops the habit of checking what's on HBO or Showtime or one of the basic cable services, over time that's going to impact not only what people watch during the summer, but what people are watching during the season."
A glance at the fall schedule suggests that at least a few TV sets in those network executive suites are wired for cable. Previous fall schedules have tried to extend reality shows into the regular season. This September, there is not a single new reality show on the slate.