Why Scripted Shows Are Becoming Scarce on Basic Cable

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Illustration by Bruno Mangyoku
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As streaming platforms become the priority for dramas and comedies, traditional networks are relying on more cost-effective unscripted series to fill out schedules.

The twilight of basic cable’s scripted era has arrived. Steep linear ratings declines and parent companies more concerned with their burgeoning streaming businesses are prompting a new commitment to less expensive nonfiction programming — and even the networks known for original dramas, like TNT and USA, are scaling back.

“Cable is now the comfort food of media,” says ITV America CEO David George, a top supplier of unscripted content. “The bigger swings, the scripted swings, are happening at the streamers.”

Speaking to investors Jan. 29, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey announced that his company’s own big swings would be reserved for upcoming streamer HBO Max. His suite of legacy Turner networks (TNT, TBS, Tru), in turn, is set to become a more aggressive buyer in the unscripted space. “You can get the same rating at a fraction of the price,” adds George. “You can take 30 swings, as opposed to one or two.”

This reallocation of programming budgets makes sense, considering the need to overstuff subscription services hitting an already crowded marketplace, as well as cable’s recent low batting average in the scripted arena. USA, which has seen its scripted efforts more than halved since its “Blue Sky” heyday, launched pricey anthology Briarpatch out of The Sinner on Feb. 6. A steep audience decline in the second episode prompted the network to shift the series to the unorthodox 11 p.m. Monday time slot in hopes of luring more viewers from a WWE lead-in. Even middling triumphs are becoming hard to find.

Apart from a few outliers — The Walking Dead‘s lingering, if diminished, thrall on AMC, Paramount breakout Yellowstone and History dramas such as Project Blue Book and Vikings — scripted is grossly underperforming on basic cable. In 2019, scripted series represented 24 percent of the 25 highest-rated original series on cable. That’s down from 50 percent just five years ago. Thank streamers for sucking up the oxygen in that room.

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