"If you're a broadcaster, every single half-hour is worth so much to you that you're losing money hand over fist if you're not maximizing revenue wherever you can," said John Landgraf, president of the FX cable network.
DVRs, now in about half of American TV homes, are allowing networks to claim viewers aggregated over several days and multiple airings rather than just on premiere night — even though many executives worry that the device's ad-skipping functions are slowly strangling the business. The basic-cable networks also get a far greater share of income than broadcasters do from subscriber fees paid by local cable operators
And the cable outlets cut corners where they can: FX shells out less than $500,000 per episode for "Louie," the edgy comedy starring Louis CK. That covers the stand-up comic's salary as well as all production expenses. On a big network sitcom, that type of bare-bones budget wouldn't even get the entire cast to the set: "Big Bang Theory" pays a reported $300,000 per episode to Kaley Cuoco, just one of its three major stars.
The huge growth in overall programming doesn't appear to be crimping profits at cable networks such as FX. The News Corp.-owned network will spend $455.8 million on programming this year, up 25% compared with 2009, according to media research firm SNL Kagan. And yet FX is expected to log earnings of nearly $625 million this year — proving the power of those subscriber fees to push cable firms into the black.