BY SHIRLEY BRADY As broadcast networks gear up their new fall lineups, viewers may find themselves sampling new shows such as Whoopi on NBC or rubbernecking the fallout of ABC’s risky decision to continue 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter without John Ritter. Of course, the real appointment viewing in many homes will be NBC’s Thursday night anchor, Friends, which this week starts its final season. NBC is also betting on a dark horse later on Thursday nights. The edgy remake of BBC America’s Coupling is hoped to position NBC for life after Friends. But with nary a snog, a shag or (ahem!) even a swallow in sight, viewers checking out its version of Coupling this fall will be deprived of some of the British cast’s best lines. Will NBC’s version push viewers to seek out the original’s verbal foreplay, unpredictable wit and wickedness on BBC America — that is to say, on cable? Such questions make this fall’s TV season intriguing. It may not be cable’s season — yet — to beat broadcast, but the annual battle is heating up. Programmers and marketers are working overtime with less-than-broadcast budgets to parlay breakout hits such as Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and FX’s Nip/Tuck — both with a summer’s worth of mega-buzz and ratings — into a network-slaying fall. “Cable has been able to make inroads when they start their series in the summer,” says Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming services for Carat USA. “Their great opportunity to showcase their new cutting-edge original programming is during the time when the networks aren’t doing that.” Despite the networks’ adding reality shows this summer, “what still resonates with viewers is a quality scripted series,” adds Brill. “There was such a glut of dating shows this summer it became the attack of the reality clones.” That reality glut boosted cable’s best and brightest. HBO’s Sex and the City averaged a 14.0 rating, 22 share and 6.7 million viewers for the dozen episodes that comprised its so-called summer season. The Fab Five grabbed the spotlight for Bravo, which built momentum throughout the summer to top 3 million viewers by late August, smashing all previous records in the network’s 20-year-plus history. And across the board, cable dazzled brighter than ever as it attempted to win loyal viewers before they are tempted by new network fare. Basic cable attracted more than half the available prime-time television audience this summer, averaging 55% of viewers compared with 38% for the broadcast networks, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. “Cable is going into the fall season with unprecedented momentum,” says CAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham. “Last fall, for the first time ever, ad-supported cable’s audience surpassed that of the Big Four broadcast networks. We’re confident this lead will grow in the upcoming season.” “Cable has overtaken the networks in terms of collective share and, individually, there are some really successful shows,” adds Brill. However, “the average cable network…will have just a handful of signature shows. It may not necessarily translate to the rest of their programming, which isn’t necessarily original. As a group cable can defeat network, but because there are so many choices a lot of the bigger [cable] networks are cannibalizing each other.” One TV analyst willing to tip the odds in cable’s favor is Stacey Lynn Koerner, EVP and director for global research integration for Initiative Media. “Coming off another healthy summer season, cable is again poised to attract bigger audiences this fall,” says Koerner in her fall TV preview. “Most demographic categories will be evenly split, but will continue to gravitate toward the cable realm…This will be the first time that cable will outperform the broadcast networks on households for the regular season.” She backs up that assertion by pointing to cable originals such as Queer Eye and TLC’s Trading Spaces and the networks’ scheduling of up to 50% repeat telecasts in non-sweep months: “The greater the percentage of repeats,” Koerner says, “the greater the benefit to cable.” But only ten cable networks generate better than a 1.0 household rating in prime time, she notes, adding that, “In aggregate, cable is a formidable competitor, but marketers buy networks and programs, not distribution systems.” Viewers also don’t think in terms of broadcast or cable. They think in terms of shows and networks. When a series such as Queer Eye puts its cable home on the map and translates that success to broadcast, that show has become as much of a brand as the network itself. And that boosts prime-time ratings. Steve Sternberg, SVP and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA, points to those cable networks that consistently achieve higher than a 1.0 household rating as “a sign that we may be seeing the start of the cannibalization of the top cable networks by the up-and-comers.” Sternberg says that no one cable network “singularly impacts the broadcast networks much,” and that “despite strong percentage growth, only a handful even manage a 1.0 household rating in prime time, and among adults 18 to 49 fewer still manage even a 0.5 rating. In aggregate, however, [cable networks] account for a large chunk of former network viewers.” And that — along with better-than-broadcast original programming on cable — has network execs worried. Which is where cable programmers want them to be. Jeff Gaspin wears both hats as president of Bravo and EVP of alternative series, specials, longform and program strategy at its parent company, NBC. As such, he was able to engineer the cross-network play that gave Queer Eye a berth on NBC’s Thursday night prime time this summer — a success story that would seem to bode well for Coupling. “The moons aligned for Bravo this summer,” says Gaspin. “We always knew Queer Eye was a good show, we had a lot of confidence in it and we put a lot of marketing money behind it before its launch. But I don’t think anything would have told us that it was going to become the phenomenon that it has, as quickly as it has.” He recalls how, at first, the TV writers assembled at the Television Critics Association Tour in July were lukewarm — until the Fab Five hit the stage. “There was a little hesitation at first because the title was a little aggressive, but I also knew people would talk about the title,” Gaspin recalls. “And that was important because that meant people were talking about Bravo, and that was my goal — that’s the only way to move the needle in this cluttered universe.” That strategy saw the show breaking records well into this month, when it scored a record-setting 3 million-plus viewers for its Sept. 2 telecast. “There is no question that NBC’s involvement contributed to its success as quickly as it did,” he acknowledges. “I’m not saying that over six months or over a year people wouldn’t have found this show on its own. But the launching platform we were given by NBC launched it quicker. “We weren’t just a one-trick pony this summer,” Gaspin adds. “We also did Boy Meets Boy…and that turned out to be the second top-rated show in Bravo’s history. The combination was very potent, and then we put West Wing on Monday through Thursday, and that being a successful upscale show, all of sudden Bravo had a completely different profile than it had a few months earlier. That’s also thanks to the incredible marketing job that we did as a channel. [NBC Agency SVP of advertising services] Vivi Zigler and her team really focused our efforts on the summer. We launched these shows as if they were on a network like NBC, not a network like Bravo.” With new episodes of Queer Eye now in production and other shows premiering this fall and in development for ’04, Gaspin’s challenge is to build on the summer buzz. “We still look at ourselves as a niche network with a focused demo of 25 to 54, very upscale. We’ve got [NBC summer hit] The Restaurant coming up, a sophisticated, upscale reality/documentary type show. We’re now in production on Significant Others, which like Queer Eye is unique in its genre: a sitcom that is virtually 100% unscripted. It was originally designed for NBC but when we saw it we thought, ‘this is a great show for Bravo.’” Gaspin’s goal for all Bravo’s programming is the same: “We want to influence pop culture, not just reflect it.” That might also be the mantra of the much-buzzed-about Trio, the Vivendi Universal-owned network poised to join NBC’s cable network ranks. Its president, Lauren Zalaznick, is proud of what the network accomplished not only this summer, but also this year. “We had an accelerated year and did our first totally original idea, Brilliant But Cancelled, as a stunt last December,” she explains. “And we went into ’03 to do a big monthlong programming event each quarter and supplement that with high-profile limited series [such as upcoming 24 Hours With] and the expansion of Brilliant But Cancelled launching this fall as a strip.” Now nudging 20 million homes, Trio is piquing pop culture lovers this fall with programming such as My Trio!: Quentin Tarantino, a weeklong prime-time block of films next month, as selected by the director whose long-awaited new feature, Kill Bill, is also coming this fall. FX Networks president and CEO Peter Liguori says cable has a lot to be proud of. “It was a great summer for cable, there was a lot of talk about TV out there with Nip/Tuck, with [USA’s] Peacemakers, with [ESPN’s] Playmakers, with [A&E’s] MI-5 and of course Queer Eye,” he says. “It sends a real message to the creative community that basic cable is a place for bold shows and bold ideas. We’re very proud that we had the No. 1 show on basic cable this summer and we think it’s a show that further clarified our brand and raised our profile, and it also just disproves the theory that basic cable series can’t maintain their ratings.” As this summer’s cable leader — topping the key adults 18-to-49 demo with an average 2.1 million viewers and beating time-slot challenger Queer Eye — Liguori hopes Nip/Tuck‘s fans will keep his network top of mind this fall. “It’s very difficult to compete with the noise of the fall premieres,” he says. “There’s only one cable network that dares attempt to do that, and that’s HBO, and they have eight-digit marketing budgets to support it. We feel it’s incumbent upon us to go when the networks are not making a lot of noise, and that tends to be winter, early spring and most definitely early summer. It’s one of the luxuries of cable, we don’t have to program to fill a time period. When Friends goes down, NBC has to hope that Joey! can fill that void. That’s the task that [former FX entertainment president] Kevin Reilly now faces: He’s going to have to fill time slots. So this fall we’re going to pull back and prepare ourselves for those periods when the networks are down. We’re at the ready with season three of The Shield, we have renewed Nip/Tuck for next season, we’re going to be premiering a reality show currently called Master Plan but we’re looking for a new title.” Roger Marmet, SVP and GM of TLC, agrees that “The tide has turned and it’s going to be very difficult for broadcast to really come back because cable is surging. For us, we were up each month in the summer, which is obviously a great time to launch. We launched Trading Spaces Family in a Sunday 7 o’clock slot, but it’s been consistently in the top slot on cable.” New fall shows such as Date Patrol and Resident Life will build more attention across TLC’s schedule while flagship show Trading Spaces builds out its franchise this fall. TLC is well equipped to fend off any cannibalization from other cable home makeover shows this season: House Wars (USA, Sept. 29), House Rules (TBS, Oct. 10), House of Dreams (A&E, Q2 ’04) and Date With Design (Sept. 30), one of three new home-based series coming up on HGTV. Witness the continuing success of the Trading Spaces franchise, which gave a healthy push to its new home show Clean Sweep. Its Sept. 13 debut earned a 2.67 household rating and a 3.12 women 25-to-54 rating (beating broadcast) as the lead-in to Trading Spaces, which that night earned a 3.34 household rating and a 3.57 women 25 to 54. A tip of the hat must also go to BBC America, whose Changing Rooms begat Trading Spaces. “When we set this network up we said we’re going to be a platform for great new ideas, new talent, new formats,” says BBC America CEO Paul Lee. “We never thought we’d be this influential this quickly, whereby a whole genre like makeover in prime time is now doing so well on our sister network TLC and beyond on so many other networks. “We were the first on basic cable to push the boundaries of taste and sexier programming. Just like Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO, our sexier comedies such as Coupling and The Office (new season Oct. 12) are leading the pack.” Liguori hints that the day when cable networks take on broadcasters head-to-head may be coming soon. “Our goal is that at some point in the not-too-distant future we’d love to put on a show in the third quarter,” he says. “We even debated that a bit with Nip/Tuck. I’m glad we did it the way we did, but there’s a point in the not-too-distant future where we might do that.” When he does, it will be a sure sign that cable is ready to take on the big boys on their own seasonal turf.