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Summer Brings a Bumper Crop of Cable Series

Original series are having a dramatic effect on cable this summer.

TNT and USA alone are airing a dozen dramas: TNT's "Saving Grace" and new nurse drama "HawthoRNe" (tonight), top-rated "The Closer" and "Raising the Bar", and "Leverage" and cop series "Dark Blue", both due July 15. USA's "In Plain Sight" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" were joined this month by "Burn Notice" and new "Royal Pains", with "Monk" and "Psych" due back Aug. 7.

Cable networks have long coveted warm-weather months, when networks take a pass on ambitious programming. But TV viewership last summer declined just 9 percent from the regular season, not nearly as much as is often assumed.

"They have carte blanche during the summer," says Shari Anne Brill of ad firm Carat USA. Broadcast networks focus on "reality TV and shows that would not have been scheduled during the regular season," which leaves a clearer path for cable.

"Fans of scripted television know that from September to May they go to broadcast networks, and then - in what's more and more a trend - people are checking out cable channels in summer," says Turner programming chief Michael Wright.

So it was telling when USA's Thursday duo of "Burn Notice" (6 million viewers) and "Royal Pains" (5.6 million) beat the debut of big sister NBC's Canadian import "The Listener" earlier this month. Or that "The Closer'''s 7.1 million fans last week outnumbered those for many other summer series on major networks, including NBC's cheesy "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!"

"We have a very different model and different approach," says USA programmer Jeff Wachtel. "The need at broadcast networks is to fill shelf space, whereas we have maybe the luxury of "no show before its time.' "

With scripted dramas filling up almost every night of the week, cable networks are approaching a critical mass. Also airing or due: Lifetime's "Army Wives" and "Drop Dead Diva", FX's "Rescue Me", HBO's "True Blood", AMC's "Mad Men" and A&E's "The Cleaner".

Though cable networks are focusing on summer, FX has aired "Nip/Tuck" and other series during the regular season, while this fall TNT plans "Men of a Certain Age", starring Ray Romano, about a group of guys celebrating their midlife crises, and USA has "White Collar", about an FBI agent who recruits a con man as helper.

"We have too much quality stuff to keep it ghettoed in summer," Wachtel says."

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