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Plugging into cable: A look at US cable programming

The finale of The Sopranos was watched by nearly twelve million viewers in the US. The season-finale of TNT’s The Closer had over 9 million viewers. Not bad figures for cable. Domestic audiences and international buyers are flocking to series such as Dexter, Entourage, Nip/Tuck and Weeds, which are generally edgier and darker than their network equivalents. And this cache is no longer just the preserve of HBO and Showtime, with networks such as TNT, FX and Lifetime and others spending big bucks on original programming, often with an alternative edge.

"There’s ferocious competition," says Joel Denton, president of production and distribution at RHI Films, which makes Flash Gordon for the Sci Fi channel. "The cable networks are growing and the networks are struggling. All the cable networks are competing and they need more event programming. They also seem to work internationally because the demographic appeal is more targeted."

There has been a noticeable shift this year. "This summer has been dramatic," says Paul Lee, president of Disney-owned cable net ABC-Family. "There are a handful of networks that are making scripted drama of the same quality as the broadcast networks. There’s a coming of age."

HBO has been the main proponent of much of this quirky cable programming. Its series often epitomise the darker side of television programming; The Sopranos’ brutal mafia world, Six Feet Under’s funeral-home family drama, The Wire’s downbeat portrayal of cops and robbers and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s anarchic humour all highlight cable’s ability to be edgy and popular. The preserve of cable in the US, internationally, these shows are acquired by free-to-air and pay TV broadcasters alike.

However, until the start of the year, HBO had a convoluted system of distributing its programming. Previously, HBO’s programming sales were largely handled by fellow Time Warner subsidiary Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, while certain documentaries were sold by C4 International and Granada International. HBO handled sales in Canada, the UK and all other international territories for some major shows such as Rome and Band of Brothers.

Charles Schreger, president, international distribution, HBO, says that broadcasters had become confused, so it was decided there should be one sales point. "The world has changed and we decided to do it on our own. We wanted to explore the possibilities and the networks overseas," he says.

It has since sealed a number of agreements, including a major output deal in Scandinavia with a collection of broadcasters. Pan regional pay TV operator Canal+ gets pay TV rights to HBO shows six-months before they can then air on Sweden’s SVT, Norway’s NRK, Finland’s YLE and Denmark’s TV2.

HBO’s pay cable rival Showtime, owned by CBS Corp., has had some success with its slightly unconventional slate. The success of serial-killer thriller Dexter and suburban pot dealing drama Weeds, has cleared the way for the commission of shows including The Tudors, a turbo-paced look at the life of Henry VIII, and Californication. Showtime’s international distribution was taken on by CBS-Paramount International Television this year in the wake of the Viacom/CBS corporate split.

Dexter, which is produced by the Colleton Company and The Michaels&Goldwyn Company, has received particular notoriety. Exec producer John Colleton says that even though the show, an adaptation of Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter novel, was for Showtime, they tried to insinuate the violence in a Hitchcock-esque fashion. "The violence is more implied than specific. It’s not like movies like Saw," he says.

The show has been sold to FX in the UK and South Africa’s M-Net among others. In France, the show, which was distributed by Double V, has been acquired by pay TV broadcaster Canal+ and commercial channel TF1.

Valerie Pechels, managing director of Double V, which distributes English-language shows in European territories, admits to being surprised by the success of Dexter on Canal+ because of its violent nature, which is usually a turn-off for French audiences. "We were very surprised because it’s not normal for a television station to take a show like this. TF1 will show it at the beginning of 2008 in a late night slot, because it is a violent show," she says.

CBS Paramount International Television president Armando Nunez Jr. is excited by the amount of buzz shows like Dexter are receiving. But he also notes this is not a new phenomenon, with the likes of Sex in the City having become breakout hits and generated a big buzz in previous years.

Showtime’s other major recent success has been Weeds, the half-hour comedy starring Mary Louise Parker as a pot dealing mother in suburbia, which is produced and distributed by Lionsgate. The show has been sold to over 100 territories by Lionsgate and Germany’s ProSieben, Italy’s Rai and UK’s Sky One have all picked it up.

Lionsgate’s senior VP, programming and sales, international TV, Craig Cegielski says that high-profile actors such as Mary Louise Parker (Fried Green Tomatoes, The West Wing) are attracted to the shooting schedule of a cable show, which often comprises of between 10 and 13 episodes as opposed to a network’s 22 to 24.

Cable shows cost much less than network series but, at the top end, the money spent can be sizable. For instance, the first season of Weeds had a budget of around $1.5 million per episode. Blueprint-produced, Fremantle-distributed, John Waters comedy-drama ‘Til Death Do Us Part (known internationally as Love you to Death) airs on Court TV and is reported to cost $1 million per episode.

Greg Phillips, president of Fireworks International, which distributes The N’s snowboarding drama Whistler and Lifetime’s Kaleidoscope Entertainment-produced vampire detective series Blood Ties, says that the main cost differential is the talent. "A lot of the money spent by the networks is on above the line attachment. What the pay guys are doing is spending the lion’s share on the screen."

ABC-Family has found success with teen series such as college drama Greek, which has just been sold to digital channel BBC Three in the UK, and teen drama Kyle XY, which has been sold to over 120 territories. It has also just greenlit two pilots including road-trip comedy Campers and roommate comedy Roomies. President Paul Lee says its shows are cheaper to make because it unearths new stars such as Kyle XY’s Matt Dallas. "We don’t spend as much as the networks. We are discovering talent. We can make drama cheaper because our stars are younger," he says.

ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson notes that cable and network TV are governed by different rules: "It’s always a frustration that we’re kept to a different set of standards. It’s evident at the Emmys, it’s odd to be judged on a different playing field – it’s not a fair comparison."

International broadcasters cannot always count on paying much less for cable series. The BBC, for instance, paid a reported $300,000 per episode for FX’s legal drama Damages.

The BBC has also picked up Lionsgate’s period drama Mad Men, which follows a group of hard drinking, misogynistic advertising executives in the 1960s. The show airs on the American Movie Channel (AMC), which until this summer only aired classic films. Lionsgate’s Cegielski says that it initially thought it might be a tough sell internationally, but has been pleasantly surprised. "Another challenge for international buyers was that it debuted on a cable network, AMC. European buyers were asking if AMC had a serious audience," he says.

The N is moving to become a full-fledged channel to build recognition. It currently shares channel space in the US with preschool net Noggin. Producers hope that this will create more awareness for shows on the station.

Marvista, which produces The N’s teen surfing series Beyond the Break, believes that this will boost the series’ international profile. The show has been sold to France’s M6, Spain’s La Sexta and Kanal 5 in Sweden and managing director Fernando Szew says that it expects to close a deal with a free-to-air broadcaster in the UK shortly.

Because cable broadcasters usually commission 10-to-12 episodes, distributors often wait for two or more series before pushing cable series internationally. Szew says that a third season of the show has been greenlit in the States and that will be the second season internationally. "In the US the show is 30 minutes, but internationally we needed one hour," he says.

Cableready has a similar, high-volume business model. The distributor sells factual and crime series such as Inside the Actors Studio and Forensic Files. President and CEO Gary Lico says that most broadcasters pick up between six-to-ten shows at a time. It has found particular success in Germany with Medical Detectives, which airs on the Vox channel with ratings similar to CSI. As a result, it negotiated a price increase for further sales. "Buyers are getting like viewers, they don’t care if a programme is on cable or on a network," says Lico.

A by product of the move to original programming from many of the cable networks has been a decrease in the number of slots for TV movies, the traditional lifeblood of cable channels like Lifetime and USA Network.

Gene George, president of TV movie producer and distributor Regent Entertainment, says: "A lot of our business in the TV market has been getting tougher. There hasn’t been as many commissions because of the success of some of the series. As these series become more successful they’re going to be elminating some of the TV movie slots."

However, George adds that there are always new cable channels springing up that are willing to acquire TV movies, which cost much less than original drama commissions. Regent produces 12 to 15 movies per year and acquires a further 4 to 6 for distribution in international markets, where broadcasters are looking for large volumes.

Its current slate of movies includes action disaster flick Nuclear Hurricane, female thriller Stolen Life, Bourne Identity-inspired The Delphi Effect and Christmas Caper, the last two of which feature former Beverley Hills 90210 star Shannen Doherty.

George says that it has just completed an output deal with Spanish broadcaster Antena3 after its previous arrangement with rival broadcaster Telecinco expired. He says international business is brisk, particularly in major European markets such as Germany.