The Season of Broadcast Disconnect

With cable's vampires, stage moms and methheads, this could be nets' worst summer yet

Perhaps no series is more emblematic of cable’s summer slate than the HBO vampire drama True Blood. A gory bouillabaisse of sex, death and escapism, Alan Ball’s gleefully erratic swamp opera seems to share a strand of DNA with nearly every show on cable.

Overstuffed and overheated, fleshy and flashy, True Blood embodies all the things that makes cable appointment viewing during the sultry months. Crammed with more antiheroes than FX’s Sons of Anarchy, Blood can be as brooding and self-reflexive as Breaking Bad. And the ghoulishness isn’t limited to drama—the moral turpitude of Blood’s Bon Temps has infected reality series like A&E’s Storage Wars, Lifetime’s Dance Moms and truTV’s Southern-fried repo farce Lizard Lick Towing.

If True Blood is a metonym for cable’s summer slate, broadcast’s goofy roster of empty-calorie fare puts one in mind of Count Chocula. It’s a sugary slurry of competition series and hook-up shows studded with the occasional marshmallowy nugget of drama. The networks’ summer offerings aren’t meant to serve as a meal; rather, they exist to sort of tide viewers over until it’s time for the autumn repast.

Given cable’s lowly beginnings as a warehouse of crummy old movies and repeats of creaky detective series, the sheer amount of original content now available is stupefying. AMC’s Breaking Bad is arguably the finest TV show since David Simon typed the “–30–” at the bottom of the final script of The Wire; more so than the (deservedly) fawned-over Mad Men, Vince Gilligan’s unsparing portrait of dissolution offers the sort of high-grade drama once reserved for the likes of HBO. Though sharing dimensions of a standard sitcom, comedian Louis C.K.’s idiosyncratic FX series is almost impossible to classify. Set to return for Season 3 on June 28, his autobiographical comedy Louie is a profoundly human meditation on what it’s like to be a sentient being in post-everything America.

Of course, neither series is everyone’s cup of chamomile. Breaking Bad rarely gets within shooting distance of the 2 million viewer mark and Louie is lucky to deliver half that. If either show premiered on a broadcast network, they’d be canceled during the first commercial break.

Which isn’t to say that cable doesn’t have its share of reach vehicles. USA Network now boasts more popular original dramas than any other net. Since assuming responsibility for USA in May 2004, Bonnie Hammer is pitching a near-perfect game; except for the 2008 series The Starter Wife, every drama introduced during her tenure has been renewed for at least a second season. Last summer, USA accounted for five of cable’s most-watched series, ensuring its sixth straight seasonal sweep of the three primary ratings categories: total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

That said, only a handful of cable series can outdeliver the average broadcast audience. On Wednesday, June 13, the series premiere of TNT’s Dallas whipped up 6.9 million viewers, making it the night’s second most-watched program on television. Only Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance almost bested J.R. Ewing, drawing 6.7 million viewers in the 8-10 p.m. slot. Trouble is, the Dallas audience was a little long in the tooth. The two-hour opener averaged a 1.5 in the 18-49 demo, a rating that was eclipsed by Fox’s competition series (2.5).

“You have to hand it to cable—they may not get very big numbers, but they’re all anyone wants to talk about,” says one network executive, who asked not to be named. “Pro wrestling and Pawn Stars deliver the ratings, but that gets lost in all the hype. I’ll say this: the amount of press some of these shows gets tells you these guys are fantastic marketers.”