A Glut Of Debuts Turns Winter Into The New Fall

Clutter traditionally refers to the glut of TV shows that launch each fall. But as broadcasters return from the holidays with original episodes and launch new series—while cable nets do the same—first quarter 2007 seems fuller than traditional new year starts.

For cable, first quarter may be the biggest launch season next to the summer. Among the shows premiering are Bravo’s Top Design on Jan. 31 and Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program on Feb. 1. Sci-Fi’s The Dresden Files launched Jan. 21, Lifetime’s dating show Gay, Straight or Taken debuted Jan. 8, and FX’s Dirt premiered Jan. 2. HBO’s Extras and Rome premiered this month, as did Showtime’s The L Word. A&E also launched The Sopranos’ first syndication run.

With so many cable nets launching series, most execs acknowledged it’s nearly impossible to avoid the competition these days—especially when it comes from broadcast. ABC is bringing back Lost, while CBS brings back Jericho and NBC returns Heroes. Not surprisingly, if there’s one show no one can avoid, it’s Fox’s American Idol.

FX Networks president and general manager John Landgraf said although audiences adopt the cable net’s year-round Tuesday 10 p.m. lineup of The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and now Dirt as appointment-viewing, he always hopes to drive more viewers to those shows with the movies that precede them. For last week’s Idol premiere, however, Landgraf said the network’s movie was off 40 percent. “It’s just an absolute nuke bomb,” he said of Idol. “It devastates everything in its path.”

So what’s a programmer to do? Well, some are trying to make hay where they can. For example, USA returned Nashville Star to its schedule earlier this month as a strategic move to exploit Idol’s popularity. “One of the things we looked at was whether Nashville Star could get overflow from Idol.” said Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel. “We think there’s a commonality there.”

For other execs, boosting their profiles during broadcasters’ holiday downtime has helped build first-quarter ratings. Bravo has done that with its Wednesday 10 p.m. cycles of Project Runway, Top Chef and the upcoming Top Design. “For the last ten days of the year, viewing habits are off routine,” said Frances Berwick, evp of programming and production at Bravo. “What we’ve been able to do with that period is bring in viewers—who otherwise wouldn’t check us out—by doing a lot of stunting and marathoning.”

While it may feel like there are too many people in the hot tub, advertisers generally aren’t overwhelmed by the extra bodies. “In a niche business, there is a certain subset of networks that you think will work for your clients,” said Sam Armando, svp, director of video engagement research, Starcom. “It’s our job as advertisers to recognize the difference between a show and a network. Someone who’s typically buying Lifetime isn’t going to jump to Spike.”

Besides allowing for sampling, January premieres can build momentum that carries over to the upfront season, although a single winter hit doesn’t automatically transform a cable ad-sales chief into the belle of the ball. “On cable, you’re typically looking at a 6- to 10-episode run and then the show’s gone for a year,” said John Spiropoulos, vp, group research director, MediaVest USA. “So you really need two or three hits to achieve the kind of momentum broadcast can get with just one strong show.”

With so many cable outlets producing original programming now, it may not be a golden age, but most execs see an uptick in creativity. “Whereas in broadcasting, you’re on the air from 8-11 p.m. almost every day, people aren’t naturally tuning into cable all the time,” said Lauren Corrao, evp of original programming for Comedy Central. “So cable has always had to work twice as hard to get noticed. We’ve always had to be more outrageous and more innovative.”