Basic Cable Revs Up! ; While Broadcast Networks Watched Their Reality Shows Fizzle This Summer, Basic Cable Raked in Viewers with Sharp New Scripted Dramas

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It's hard to remember that just a few short summers ago, the TV landscape was as stale as last year's lunchbox, full of reruns and cartoons.

Then a little snack called "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" popped up and suddenly summer became a candy box for the networks - but only for reality shows. It has fallen to broadcasting's poor cousin, basic cable, to launch summertime versions of the kind of scripted shows that have been the networks' bread and butter for years.

From June to August, cable networks launched more than a half- dozen scripted dramas to high ratings and critical kudos. And we're not talking about just the next installment in the "Star Trek" franchise or the women-in-peril flicks they've done to death over the years. These are high-gloss, network-quality dramas, chock-full of stars as well as top writing and producing talent.

They also contributed to another cable first: Basic cable drew 55 percent of the summer audience, versus 38 percent for the networks, according to the Cable Television Advertising Bureau.

"It's a huge problem for the network business," says Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television. "It just raises the bar of what we have to do."

Some of the marquee names that have been attracted to basic cable include British film actress Joely Richardson ("Nip/Tuck," F/X) and Tom Berenger ("The Peacemakers," USA).

"The characters in these stories have such depth and distinction," says Amanda Lotz, assistant communications professor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. "These alone would make these shows stand out, no matter where they were."

Timing also undoubtedly helped. "Summertime's always been a time of opportunity for cable," from the dawn of the industry, says Doug Herzog, president of USA Network. But as channels continue to proliferate, competition has gotten fiercer. Cable networks now must find prestigious programs to define themselves from the pack - and from the broadcast networks. "We're taking a little different tack: As they've chased the reality thing, we're going after [viewers] with quality scripted programming."

Ready for prime time

The tactic is paying off. Last summer, USA premiered both "Dead Zone" and "Monk." Tony Shalhoub is up for an Emmy later this month for playing "the defective detective," and last fall ABC picked up the show to run during the network's fall season. "The Dead Zone" premiere remains the highest-rated original dramatic series debut in the history of basic cable.

Broadcast network executives are fond of pointing to the limitations imposed by their standards-and-practices departments, saying summer audiences want extremes they can't provide.

But sex-drenched shows such as "Temptation Island" and this spring's violent Mexican mob drama, "Kingpin" on NBC, make that position tough to defend. And if "Monk'" can move to a network, it can't be doing anything the standards-and-practices folks wouldn't like. (Underlining the point, another basic-cable summer hit, the reality show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," made the same move from Bravo to NBC this summer.)

"That argument about cable being able to push boundaries is a straw dog," says Dr. Lotz. "What makes these new shows phenomenally rich doesn't come from the gore or sex, it comes from characterization, from the stories they're telling. …