When Richard Russo's Empire Falls aired as an HBO drama on Memorial Day weekend, it attracted 3.8 million viewers over its two nights, according to Variety. Although the number pales in comparison to the 25 million who viewed Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God on ABC in February, the raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Increasingly for book-based projects, cable is the place to be.

For some time, the four major broadcast networks have been cutting back on original TV movies. Since January 2002, the cable networks have out-produced them, bringing 30 book-based movies to the small screen, compared to only 17 major adaptations or miniseries on the networks, according to information submitted to PW by publishers. (CBS, with its graying demographic, had the lion's share of those.) For cable nets trying to build their brands, original dramas can grab the attention of viewers and critics. Many have been rewarded with Emmy nominations in recent years, noted Delia Fine, v-p of film, drama and performing arts programming for A&E Networks. However, PBS, which doesn't fall in either group because of its freedom from ad revenue pressures, outstripped both the cablers and networks, with 31 productions based on books, including all of the Inspector Lynley and P.D. James mysteries.

Audiences for cable shows are small compared to broadcast; top cabler TNT logged an average of 1.9 million nightly prime-time viewers vs. PBS's 1.8 million and CBS's 8.2 million. But when it comes to adaptations, raw viewership numbers don't always translate into bigger book sales.

In fact, cable adaptations can sell more books than those aired on broadcast networks, because cable nets put their originals into rotation, so viewers have the opportunity to see them repeatedly over an extended period. When the History Channel ran an adaptation of Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers in 2002, Vintage saw a 250% increase in the month after the movie aired, and a further 100% increase in the second month. By contrast, ABC's 2001 production of Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, which drew more than 19 million viewers, had a "nice impact, but it wasn't massive, because it played only one time," said Vintage publicity director Russell Perreault.

Cablers are also willing to support their original movies with significant advertising and promotion in major cities. Pay channel HBO undertook a major ad campaign for its Memorial Day weekend airing of Empire Falls, which included a two-page color spread in the New York Times and full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weeklyand People magazine. The week before the show aired, the trade paperback sold an impressive 8,000 copies, according to Perreault, compared to about 2,700 the prior week. This week, the book lands at #13 on PW's list.

Niche Is Nicer

As big cablers, including TNT, TBS and A&E, shift away from a niche-audience model to a broader 18—29 target demographic, however, the sales impact of their adaptations remains to be seen. Last week, A&E premiered Faith of My Fathers, based on 1999 autobiography by John McCain and Mark Salter that was a New York Times hardcover bestseller for 24 weeks, and has been a strong backlist title for HarperPerennial. Associate publisher Carrie Kania expects A&E's advertising campaign and repeated airings of the adaptation to have a significant but not stellar impact, increasing the book's average monthly sales of 2,000 copies by about 10 times.

Niche channels, on the other hand, may boost book sales more reliably than general ones. Vintage's Perreault attributed some of the major sales impact of the History Channel's adaptation of Founding Brothers to the station's positioning. "They had exactly the right audience for us: literate history buffs," he said.

Another TV trend helping books make it to the small screen is the proliferation of so-called "limited series": projects like HBO's very successful 10-part adaptation of Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, which was structured as a long, continuous narrative. An existing book with the scope to support a limited series can be far more appealing than starting from scratch, and may have a built-in following.

As cable channels proliferate, producers may well value these "event" projects even more, as a way to snare a larger share of a splintering demographic. "Everybody is going after the same thing—a big, broad mass audience; the pie is just getting sliced more thinly," explained A&E's Fine. The good news for books is that "events" don't seem limited to a particular genre. For A&E, nonfiction books have proven to be a particularly good source: "You can't get drama that is any richer than a lot of these stories," said Fine.