2011-2012 upfront: Ad-supported cable analysis


Media analysts Steve Sternberg and Shari Anne Brill have teamed this year on the next cycle of Baseline Research’s Primetime TV Insight Reports. The first report, the 2011 Upfront Edition, details everything from network erosion and mid-season repeats, to programming trends to a network-by-network analysis. Today we look at ad-supported cable. From the report:

The industry has been accustomed to ad-supported cable gaining audience every year. This is no longer necessarily the case, however. We may have finally reached the point where cable networks are starting to cannibalize one another, rather than just siphoning off broadcast viewers.

While ad-supported cable, in aggregate, attracts more viewers than the combined total of the broadcast networks, individual cable network ratings are small by comparison. More significant, is that cable ratings tend to fluctuate, sometimes dramatically, from one season to the next. Looking at individual cable networks, only seven – Adult Swim, BET, Bravo, ESPN, FX, History, and ION – have increased their average adult 25-54 ratings for two seasons in a row during primetime.

In our Fall TV Preview edition, which will be released early this summer, we’ll provide a more in-depth look at many cable networks. For this report, we are going to focus on the season-to-date performance of just five of the top cable entertainment networks that air original scripted series – namely, USA, TBS, TNT, FX, and AMC.

As we’ll see when discussing each network, original scripted cable series perform better across-the-board when airing in the summer (opposite mostly broadcast repeats) than when airing in the fall or winter months.

USA’s characters welcome campaign has successfully established the network as a destination for content featuring sharply drawn personalities. USA is the top-ranked cable entertainment network. Its leadership position is largely due to its mix of noteworthy original series such as Psych, Burn Notice, White Collar, and Royal Pains (and, of course, WWE Raw).

The network also airs a variety of films from the Universal Studios library. After four seasons on USA (and six on NBC) Law & Order: Criminal Intent will end its run in 2011. The series returns to USA on May 1st. Freshman series Covert Affairs is USA’s strongest new entry, and now one of its highest rated shows. The recent launch of Fairly Legal was successful as well (helped by a strong on-air promo campaign on such series as CBS’s NCIS, NCIS: LA and The Good Wife). While not as strong as its USA predecessors, it is still a solid performer. Debuting opposite first-run broadcast programming limited its opening potential. Original scripted cable dramas tend to perform better with summer premieres, when the broadcast networks load up on repeats and reality.

USA’s off-network series programming over the past year included numerous replays of House, CSI, and Law & Order: SVU. These telecasts comprise a whopping 57% of USA’s annual primetime hours.

While much of the focus centers on USA’s strong stable of original series, keep in mind that they only account for about 14% of the network’s annual primetime schedule hours, somewhat more than sports, which accounts for about 10% but less than the 23% of primetime hours allocated to movies.

WWE Tough Enough, joins the schedule on Monday, April 4, the day after Wrestlemania XXVII, immediately following Raw at 11:05pm. The reality series is hosted by Stone Cold Steve Austin and will feature 14 contestants (including Miss USA, Rima Fakih) who compete to become the next WWE Superstar, under the guidance of trainers such as WWE Legends Booker T and Trish Stratus. The regular time slot will be Mondays at 8pm, starting April 11th.

In the past two years, USA has launched two new series per season: Royal Pains and White Collar in 2009/10 and Covert Affairs and Fairly Legal in 2010/11. Two new shows, Necessary Roughness and A Legal Mind, have been ordered to series. Both have 11-episode orders.

Necessary Roughness centers on a tough Long Island divorcee (Thorne) who, in order to make ends meet, gets a job as a therapist for a professional football team. Her career begins to take off when athletes, musicians, politicians and other celebrities start to request her tough love therapy. She must learn to balance her new career with being a single mother. Marc Blucas, Callie Thorne, Mehcad Brooks, and Scott Cohen star.

A Legal Mind centers on a top Manhattan corporate lawyer (Gabriel Macht) who recruits a brilliant but unmotivated college dropout (Patrick J. Adams) as a new associate.

The fourth season of In Plain Sight gets underway on Sunday, May 1, while season three of White Collar and season two of Covert Affairs get underway on Tuesday, June 7.

Royal Pains, Burn Notice and Psych will all return during summer 2011.

TBS is best known for off-network comedy, repeats of theatricals, and a handful of original African-American comedies. Its Very Funny branding campaign has positioned the network as the destination for comedy, though less than half of its primetime hours are actually comprised of the genre.

Currently, about 1/3 of TBS’s primetime hours consist of acquired comedies (which also still have active syndication runs). TBS originals make up 15% of primetime hours. Movie repeats make up close to half of its primetime schedule (48%), and primetime coverage of sports account for the remaining 3%.

TBS has experienced a slight dip in ratings performance among households and adults 25-54, during 2010/11 (season-to-date). The cable network currently ranks ninth against households and is in third place among adults 25-54.

TBS’s original African-American cast sitcoms, Are We There Yet?, Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, are among the Top five primetime comedies among African-American adults 18-34 and 18-49. Unfortunately, their appeal does not extend as strongly to general audiences.

After four seasons, My Boys ended its run delivering the lowest ratings for any scripted TBS original series during 3rd Quarter 2010. 

The launch of new animated comedy, Neighbors from Hell, failed to ignite much interest, and was the network’s second lowest performing original series. The show has reportedly been canceled.

Glory Daze, which launched as a lead-in to Conan, was the top ranked original series against adults 18-34. Nevertheless, the show declined throughout its nine-episode run, and was canceled.

TBS’s roster of acquired comedies consists of mega doses of Seinfeld, Family Guy, The Office, American Dad and King of Queens. TBS’s movie library is comprised mostly of comedies, though there a few dramas in the mix.

TBS has two original one-hour scripted series and one animated series in development. The Wedding Band centers on four friends. Some are married and some are single, all with day jobs and responsibilities, but they share one thing in common: they are in a wedding band. Brian Austin Green and Harold Perrineau (Lost) both star. From FremantleMedia.

Brain Trust (working title) is about Detective Billy Doyle, whose career and life have hit rock bottom after he accidentally ends his partner’s career. Doyle’s life gets turned around, however, when a recent murder case gets unexpected and unconventional help from three hyper-smart geniuses from a private think tank. If Doyle can survive the chaos and keep these new partners in line, they just may be the antidote to resurrect his career and, ultimately, his life. From Devlin’s Electric Entertainment.

The Black Family introduces a blended interracial family, the Blacks. From executive producer/writer Ali LeRoi (Everybody Hates Chris, Are We There Yet?), Todd Goldman, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Shawn Wayans, and Rick Alvarez.

TNT is known for drama and sports. Its We Know Drama campaign has successfully branded the network, which is perennially among the top rated cable outlets. The network also has a stable of successful original scripted dramas only rivaled by USA for consistently strong ratings.

The Closer, arguably the most successful ad-supported cable original series ever, gets ready to enter its final season still going strong. This past season’s debut of Rizzoli & Isles was a resounding success, as its ratings (at least for viewers under 55) have surpassed even those of The Closer. It remains to be seen, however, whether this performance can be maintained without the benefit of having that long-running hit as a lead-in. But that problem is still more than a year away for TNT.

The next tier of TNT original dramas, HawthoRNe, Leverage, and the newer Memphis Beat generate similar ratings – more than a 2.0 rating among households and 1.0 rating among adults 25-54 – good enough to be considered successful on cable.

Two critically acclaimed series, Men of a Certain Age and Southland, round out TNT’s current crop of original scripted dramas. Not quite at the audience levels of the others, they still perform decently – Men’s ratings are well above the network’s average, while Southland’s barely are. But both are top-notch in terms of quality. Southland has just been renewed for another 10-episode season (start date yet to be determined).

TNT has ordered 10 episodes of Perception, a new drama about a neuroscientist (Eric McCormack) who works with the federal government to crack difficult cases. TNT’s acquired off-network programming over the past year included heavy doses of Bones, as well as Law & Order and some CSI: NY. The Mentalist will join TNT’s schedule later this year.

While much attention centers on TNT’s original series, they only account for about 12% of the network’s annual primetime schedule hours. Far less than the 46% allocated to movies, 23% to off-network series, and 18% to sports. On Sunday, June 19th, TNT will debut a new sci-fi drama, Falling Skies (with Noah Wyle, from Dreamworks and Steven Spielberg) with a two-hour premiere. It looks compelling, but you never know with sci-fi series until they actually air.

The now all-too-common descriptor, light-hearted legal drama, applies to another new series, Franklin and Bash (with Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who was in the network’s last failed attempt at light-hearted legal drama, Raising the Bar). Both new shows will have 10-episode runs.
Men of a Certain Age will return in June with six new episodes, while Memphis Beat, Leverage, and HawthoRNe, will be back with 10 summer telecasts each.

On Monday, July 11th, TNT’s strongest series, The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles, will rejoin the network’s summer lineup. As usual, they will elevate the network’s summer ratings.

FX is another network that has successfully branded itself – as the home to gritty, push-the-envelope dramas – from The Shield and Rescue Me, to Nip/Tuck, and more recently Sons of Anarchy (which is one of the highest rated original cable series on the air among viewers under 35) and Justified.

The network seems to have moved away from the formula that made its dramas so successful, however. Recent efforts, The League, Terriers, and Lights Out, have not been able to attract sizable audiences. On the original comedy front, the animated Archer does OK, while It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia remains a solid hit among the under-35 crowd.

FX generally appeals to a significantly younger audience than USA or TNT, and that actually makes it more difficult to develop a hit – since older viewers as a group watch significantly more television.

FX’s main acquired off-network program is Two and a Half Men. And while much industry focus is on its original series, movies actually accounted for nearly 80% of its primetime schedule hours over the past year, with original and off-network series at about 10% apiece.

It seems like just yesterday that AMC was known as an older-skewing cable network airing little but old movies. Few networks have turned their image around so quickly and effectively among the press and among advertisers.

It accomplished this not just by transitioning from old classic to “new classic” movies, but by scheduling three highly praised original series – Mad Men (four seasons), Breaking Bad (three seasons) and The Walking Dead (just completed its first season). The network’s one misstep was the failed Rubicon – a very good show that was not compatible with Mad Men (with which it was paired) on Sunday. Its median age of 60, combined with low demo ratings under 50, led to its cancellation after just one season.

Breaking Bad has been more popular among the press and critics than among viewers. Mad Men’s strength remains in adults 55+ (although it does perform decently among adults 25-54). Negotiations are reportedly progressing slowly for Mad Men’s fifth season, so it may not have its typical mid-summer start date.

The zombie mystery thriller, The Walking Dead, now stands as the strongest original scripted series on ad-supported cable, generating ratings of 2.5 or higher among households, adults 18-34, 18-49, and 25-54. The network is hoping its latest mystery drama, The Killing, which debuted on April 3rd to strong ratings, will join its hit parade.

Despite the image makeover, roughly 90% of AMC’s primetime schedule hours during the past 12 months were devoted to movies, with less than 5% for first-run original scripted series. As I’m writing this, I’m flipping through TV Guide, and here’s what’s listed for AMC during primetime: Monday – Movie (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen); Tuesday – Movie (Hidalgo); Wednesday – Movie (The Chronicles of Riddick); Thursday – Movie (Stranger Than Fiction); Friday – Movie (The Birdcage); Saturday – Movie (Speed); Sunday – Movie (Speed).

Brill can be reached at [email protected]. She tells RBR-TVBR the entire report series can be ordered here