Prestige Often Outweighs Performance in Cable's Scripted Push

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce S01E04 Still - H 2014
Sergei Bachlakov

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce S01E04 Still - H 2014

The bottom line gets blurry as more networks try to court advertisers with glossy dramas

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Reality-centric cable networks have had trouble classing up their slates with scripted series. But the Dec. 2 bow of Bravo's Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce could be a validation of the pricey strategy.

Read more 'Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce's' Lisa Edelstein on Losing Control in Bravo's First Scripted Series

Guide delivered a solid 1.4 million viewers in its debut week. More important, perhaps, were the strong reviews. "It's a very different business model," says NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment president of lifestyle networks Frances Berwick, who also is prepping E!'s first scripted offering, The Royals, for March. "More than anything, our creative team is validated."

All ratings being equal, ad buyers now prefer scripted over unscripted, and pop culture prestige increasingly drives branding. BBC America's Orphan Black delivers tiny ratings, but its rave reviews lifted the network's profile -- one reason why AMC paid $200 million for a 49.9 percent stake in October. On the other hand, WE tv's The Divide pulled as few as 280,000 viewers, but its lack of buzz was an equal factor in its cancellation. Similarly, A&E yanked Chloe Sevigny's panned Those Who Kill after two episodes.

Read more Reality Retreat: What's Behind AMC Axing Unscripted TV

Notes truTV president Chris Linn, who recently ordered its first scripted pilot: "There's no doubt about the benefits [of scripted] when it works. But when it doesn't work, it's a very expensive venture that you pay for for a long time."