Commentary: Cable sneaks up with A-listers and fresh biz models


"Continuous quantitative accumulations lead to a qualitative change," states the law of transformation from Karl Marx's philosophy of dialectical materialism.

Like when you heat water: Its temperature goes up (a quantitative change), but it remains basically the same (it's still water). But if you keep heating past 100°C, the water boils until it evaporates, undergoing a qualitative change and turning into something new -- steam -- just like if you cool water past 0°C, it turns into ice.

I've been thinking about that law -- part of my mandatory high school curriculum in communist Bulgaria -- for the past month. Because after years of gaining on broadcast in the ratings and on the awards circuit, cable recently jumped to a new level with a series of A-list talent migrations:

-- Top broadcast producer John Wells made his foray into cable with the dramedy "Shameless" in the works at HBO.

-- Phil Rosenthal and Ray Romano, the respective creator and star of one of the biggest broadcast comedies, CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond," picked the cable route for their return to television. Rosenthal is developing three projects for HBO, and two weeks ago TNT picked up Romano's drama "Men of a Certain Age" to series.

-- With seven series on CBS, Jerry Bruckheimer is the dominant producer on broadcast TV and the king of crime procedurals. But instead of landing his traditional big commitment from a broadcast network last summer, he took his latest procedural, "The Line," to TNT. This month, "Line" became Bruckheimer's first cable series. He also has the drama "Cocaine Cowboys" set up at HBO.

But the biggest indication that cable's small and steady quantitative advancements have led to a sea change came last month when Oprah Winfrey inked an exclusive development deal with HBO.

Oprah is the epitome of broad appeal. She has her finger on the zeitgeist and has enormous influence in setting trends and shaping viewers' tastes.

If, after 20 years at ABC, Oprah left the broadcast world for HBO, it would be the most unequivocal sign to date that cable is becoming the place to be.

Indeed, though once a dumping ground for shows rejected by the broadcast networks, cable has become the preferred destination for top writing and acting talent.

And what's not to like? After starting low, the pay at top-tier cable networks now is comparable to that at the broadcast nets. Writers get more creative freedom, and actors can keep a viable feature career with only 13 episodes a year. Cable's pilot-to-series ratio and renewal rates are high, and even low-rated new shows play out their entire first seasons, unlike their broadcast brethren, often yanked after a handful of episodes.

As the number of cable networks grew during the past two decades, the sector slowly gained market share from broadcast. Now cable nets are starting to win some direct face-offs.

In the fall, when it carries "Monday Night Football," ESPN is the top network on the night, beating the broadcast nets in the 18-49 demo and sometimes in total viewers.

ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" trounces the CW's top female drama "Gossip Girl" on Mondays, with "7th Heaven" and "Secret Life" creator Brenda Hampton proving she can capture the teen audience regardless of whether her show airs on broadcast or cable.

Online monitoring service CableU recently predicted that, with NBC's primetime audience expected to get smaller and older at10 p.m. with Jay Leno's talk show, top-rated cable network USA will beat it in a major ratings category on at least one night this year.

Still, a time slot win here and there is far from a major threat to the top broadcast nets. But with cablers chipping away in the ratings, making a splash at award shows and pulling away talent, broadcasters are taking notice. They are beginning to look up to their younger brother and emulate some techniques.

For instance, broadcasters are adopting cable's (and Europe's) scheduling of a whole season of uninterrupted originals with such serialized dramas as Fox's "24" and ABC's "Lost."

They're vowing to embrace the cable model of more targeted development with fewer pilots, and NBC and the CW are mulling programming two hours a night, five days a week, like a cable network.

A veteran TV executive who once ran a broadcast net and now works in basic cable told me a year ago that he didn't think broadcasters can survive on ad revenue alone, not without the monthly fees ad-supported cable networks collect to supplement their income.

The broadcasters' future is threatened by viewer fragmentation and the rising penetration of ad-skip-friendly DVRs. That transition is hard to reverse, like water changing to ice or steam.

Let's just hope the change doesn't leave broadcast frozen in time, or worse, make it evaporate into thin air.