NBC Universal's cable networks soar
USA, Sci Fi, Bravo experience success
By Josef Adalian
Variety – 7/12/07
USA Network will use new segs of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" to build a Thursday beachhead, while Sci Fi Channel is readying a modern update of a Homerian classic.
Announcements of these moves -- along with word of a fourth-season pickup for Bravo hit "Top Chef" -- will be made this weekend at the NBC Universal cable portion of the TV Critics Assn. press tour. Jeff Gaspin, the conglom's prexy of cable and digital content, is also expected to deliver a clear message about the health of the division.
Bottom line: The Peacock may be plucked, but NBC U's cable properties continue to soar.
NBC Universal will release a ratings analysis of the January-June Nielsen data showing that its three major nets -- USA, Sci Fi and Bravo -- contributed 67 of basic cable's top 100 individual primetime entertainment telecasts (in total viewers). While many of those telecasts were WWE wrestling, Peacock properties also scored with shows such as "Monk," "Burn Notice," "The Starter Wife," "Top Chef" and airings of the Jerry Bruckheimer pics "National Treasure" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."
More impressively, NBC U cable skeins, including "The Starter Wife," "Battlestar Galactica" and "The 4400," made up eight of cable's top 10 primetime entertainment series in adults 25-54 during the first half of the year. (Discovery's "Planet Earth" drew boffo ratings but isn't counted as a series.)
More recently, all three NBC U cablers notched their best-ever second-quarter primetime demo ratings.
"It's no secret that cable has been driving a lot of the profits of this company, and we're very proud of that," Gaspin told Daily Variety, crediting USA/Sci Fi supremo Bonnie Hammer and Bravo topper Lauren Zalaznick for much of the success.
Hoping to build on the early 2007 momentum:
USA has slotted "Law & Order: CI" in the 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot, pitting it against NBC's "ER" and CBS' "Without a Trace." Skein, which is moving from NBC to cable this fall, will start its seventh season on Oct. 4.
Decision to sked "CI" on Thursdays comes in the wake of USA's summer success airing original skeins "Starter Wife" and "Burn Notice" on Thursdays. It's the first time USA has attempted original programming on the all-important night, and Gaspin thinks it could be a major boon to the cabler's bottom line thanks to the glut of movie advertising money on the night.
"Especially in the summer, look at how many blockbusters there are (to market)," he said. "I think what you'll ultimately see is USA having the ability to program Thursdays 52 weeks a year, the same way they do on Fridays and Sundays."
USA still hasn't announced a season-two pickup for "Burn Notice," but given the strong ratings during its first two weeks, a renewal seems likely -- perhaps as soon as this weekend, if episode three holds up.
"We're incredibly gratified by the numbers on a new night," Gaspin said of the skein. "It's the real deal."
Sci Fi is developing the six-hour miniseries "Going Homer," from "Farscape" alum Ben Browder and Andrew Prowse. Taken from the Odyssey, project will revolve around a 12-year-old, Homer Ulysses Jones, who sets off on a journey from L.A. to New York in order to escape a custody battle. Homer is able to see what others can't: Greek and Roman gods are here on earth, walking among mortals. Some gods will aid his journey, while others will seek to kill him in order to prevent him from getting home.
Cabler has carved out a niche remaking classics. Its next such project, "The Wizard of Oz"-inspired "Tin Man," is expected to air in November or December.
Bravo has ordered a fourth season of "Top Chef" and has decided to set the next installment of the show in Chicago. Casting will take place in Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco and L.A.
"Chef" has emerged as one of Bravo's signature skeins along with "Project Runway." Skein's season-two finale was basic cable's most-watched reality show telecast during the first half of the year.
Gaspin thinks Bravo's growth could help lift it to the top tier of cablers. Net currently ranks No. 25 in primetime, and Gaspin thinks it's very possible the net could emerge as a top 15 player within the next few years.
"They've really found their target audience in a way I don't think any other cable net has," he said.
In addition to the Peacock's big three cable nets, Gaspin said NBC U's wired division has achieved other successes this year.
Conglom has a 25% stake in A&E, and that network's strong performance "has contributed to our profits," he said. NBC U's emerging cable nets division, headed by Dan Harrison, also continues to grow distribution for webs such as Chiller and Sleuth.
Gaspin also cited NBC U's cable distribution unit as having had strong success increasing the subscriber count for the company's nets. Exec also cited the company's ability to work across divisions to support specific programming initiatives, from the launch of "Burn Notice" to an episode of "Battlestar Galactica."
When Bravo was promoting the finale of "Project Runway" last year, NBC U supremo Jeff Zucker "got involved and said, 'I want the entire company behind this finale,' " Gaspin said. "Even MSNBC and CNBC did something."