Broadcast TV’s new summer offerings have mostly gone over like medical waste on a beach. Which would explain why viewers are turning to cable in droves. Every week, a swath of networks — TNT, USA, ABC Family, Sci Fi — have broken ratings records with dramatic fare. Take TNT: Not only has The Closer scored an Emmy nod and averaged 6.4 million viewers (whupping NBC’s lone scripted offering, Windfall), that series’ success also breathed life into the network’s new medical drama Saved (3.4 million). Then there’s USA, which hit a high in July with an average audience of 3 million thanks to Psych. And ABC Family scored its most-watched show ever with the new sci-fi drama Kyle XY.
What’s behind the explosion of hits? The cable networks have run with a formula trademarked by Monk a few years back: Pair a single star with an easy-to-grasp premise and a canny marketing campaign. In the case of Kyle XY, that meant planting those ubiquitous belly-button-less billboards everywhere and leaking the first episode on iTunes. ”You’ve got to be distinctive,” says ABC Family president Paul Lee of Kyle XY, which also benefited from repeats on parent network ABC. ”Now this has become a defining show for us.” Delivering quality against networks’ lowbrow reality series doesn’t hurt either. ”Why do they run a nine-month business?” asks Steve Koonin, executive VP of TNT and TBS. ”Imagine going to the mall and seeing ‘Closed for three months.”’ Frankly, we’d much rather see that than, oh, One Ocean View.