Cable chiefs insist they've got the top model


While a panel of cable programming chiefs agreed that their development model is more economically viable than those of the broadcast networks, they weren't on the same page over whether it will stay that way.

During the Hollywood Radio & Television Society's Newsmaker Luncheon, Lifetime's Susanne Daniels on Wednesday argued that most creators come to cable expecting to make shows for smaller budgets than at broadcast, yet the quality hasn't suffered. As an example, she pointed to a sitcom pilot from MRC that Lifetime recently shot for less than half of what a broadcaster would have paid.

"It looks and smells like a network comedy," she said.

But Showtime's Robert Greenblatt countered that as cable finds more success with scripted series, the budgets will start to approach what the broadcast networks pay. At the same time, he argued that broadcasters are going to have to start bringing their expenses down "or they will be out of business."

He then made a quip about Lifetime's top-rated series: "The more it's said that 'Army Wives' is the biggest show in the history of the network, that's code word for 'renegotiations.' "

Meanwhile, the panelists took jabs at NBC's recent announcements regarding a new development model, noting that cable has been ordering fewer pilots and developing year-round from the start.

"I love these NBC missives that come down from on high about the way things should be made," Greenblatt said.

"It looks really familiar to us," USA Network's Jeff Wachtel added.

FX's John Landgraf said the broadcasters seem to spend an unnecessary amount in their development process.

"Sometimes there will be four broadcast networks going after the same project, and they end up paying a lot for a failure," he said. "I'm also surprised how much money they spend because of the multiple layers of executives who may all want something different. For us, it's not so much the money that's on the screen but the money that's not wasted."

As the broadcast model changes, more established creators are turning to cable, Turner's Michael Wright said.

"There's a sense that the talent feels displaced," he said. "Writers and producers are looking for a different kind of home. Four years ago, they were just beginning to work for us, and now maybe cable is the place to go."

None of the panelists said they're concerned over the fact that broadcast ratings have fallen — even for massive hits like Fox's "American Idol" — following the recent writers strike.

"A good show is a good show," Wachtel said. "All of us have yet to launch our first post-strike shows, but we hope and believe the audiences will be just as strong as before."

In fact, when the moderator, Variety's Cynthia Littleton, asked the execs which networks' production schedules had been affected by the strike, only Landgraf and HBO's Michael Lombardo raised their hands.

"As for 'American Idol' being down? I'd take those numbers," AMC's Charlie Collier said. With the dramas "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," AMC is the most recent entrant into the scripted game of those represented by the panelists.

For his part, Lombardo admitted that HBO's more recent scripted offerings haven't quite connected with viewers, but he promised that good things are coming.

"Some shows over the last year, while they were well executed and well written, were not as entertaining or as emotionally gripping as our audience has come to expect," he said. "But things are changing. We've got some exciting shows and pilots. A year from now it'll be a very different slate of programming on HBO. We're going to rock your world."