Most cable networks are flexing their muscles on original programs. Here are several networks' strategies and plans for the months ahead. Compiled by John M. Higgins and Allison Romano
By John M. Higgins and Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/27/2003 8:00:00 PM
The difference may be subtle, but Court TV is trying to position itself as less about crime and more of a mystery channel. Senior VP of Development Ed Hersch said that, unlike broadcast newsmagazines that "begin and end on a sobbing soundbite," Court TV is focusing on the investigation. That means more forensic experts, fewer relatives of homicide victims.
To showcase this approach, Court TV will label part of its prime time schedule I Zone, an hour featuring a mix of documentaries, reality-based dramas, specials and unscripted reality shows. New programs include Heist!, a half-hour look at audacious bank robberies and museum thefts around the world; Hollywood Justice, about celebrities caught up in crimes; and Masterminds, focused on elite, brilliant bank robbers, murderers and con men.
One limited series is The Innocence Project, about real-life wrongful convictions that have been overturned. The requisite Trading Spaces knock-off is Caper Challenge, in which two teams must emulate past difficult and complex robberies on elaborately built sets containing laser alarms, security vaults and other high-tech systems.
Ever seeking the right balance between shows about cooking and shows merely about food, Food Network is drifting back toward cooking. New shows include How To Boil Water, focusing on the basics of cooking. Also coming is The Fifteen, on which chef Jamie Oliver trains groups of unemployed street kids to manage his first restaurant, also called Fifteen. Another upcoming series is Date Plate, in which two food-savvy contestants prepare a romantic meal to win over someone they have seen but never met; the diner will pick his or her date based solely on the cooks' culinary skills.
Ratings-challenged Discovery is looking to broaden its old image—television that's good for you—by making it more entertaining as well. But the net still needs to maintain its quality image, so the big dinosaurs will keep coming. In June, Discovery will air big special Walking With Cavemen, which follows the earlier Walking With Dinosaurs. Another special will be Dinosaur Planet, which looks at prehistory with a CSI approach. Lighter-weight shows include Monster House, featuring radical, wild house renovations emulating similar car rehabs on Discovery's Monster Garage. The network also plans a beauty series from makeup maven Bobbie Brown.
Cartoon Network execs have learned their lesson: It takes more than one new original show a year to compete with Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. So, after its recent focus on building its young-adult late-night block Adult Swim, Cartoon is back to concentrating on kids.
The net is ramping up production, planning three new animated originals this year: Duck Dodgers, with Daffy Duck and friends playing futuristic characters; Teen Titans, a batch of teen superheroes guarding a West Coast city; and Low Brow, a mix of Japanese and American animation, starring a giant robot and the people trying to control it.
Sci Fi Channel
For upstart Sci Fi Channel, last December's smash hit Taken miniseries was just a sign of things to come. Its latest originals, Tremors: The Series and Shannen Doherty-hosted reality show Scare Tactics, are off to strong starts. New episodes of Stargate-SG1 arrive this summer, and Battlestar Galactica miniseries runs in December.
There is money for more. Over the next three years, Sci Fi plans to double this year's $200 million programming budget. President Bonnie Hammer wants originals to help broaden Sci Fi's appeal without sacrificing its loyal niche following.
To that end, coming for the 2004-05 TV season: four new miniseries, including a "trilogy" nine-hour miniseries with its Taken partners Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks. Seven new series are in development, headlined by Dead Lawyers, about attorneys who come back from the dead to defend wronged clients.
Went the music net started, the slogan was "We Want Our MTV!" Now they just want more of it. So MTV is keeping up its furious pace of original development, launching a new series practically every week since January. "The machine has to be in constant motion," says MTV Entertainment President Brian Graden.
Celebrity-inspired shows like Punk'd, a practical-joke show starring actor Ashton Kutcher, are particularly hot right now. Drew Barrymore's ex-husband Tom Green hosts a new late-night strip show The New Tom Green Talk Show beginning June 12. A new reality show starring newlywed musicians Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey kicks off in August.
Other reality strains are going strong, too. Made offers teens a chance to live a dream, like making the cheerleading squad; Sorority Life, a reality show on sororities, is returning for its third season; The Real World also returns, this time in Paris.
TNT and TBS Superstation
After some time on the sidelines, Turner Broadcasting System's general-entertainment nets want back into the original-series business. For TNT, that means a new scripted drama by summer 2004. The net enjoys big ratings for acquisitions, such as Law & Order; sports, with the National Basketball Association and NASCAR; and original movies. But it has been missing an original series since Witchblade was axed last year after two seasons of decent ratings. TNT also plans eight original movies and miniseries for the coming TV season.
After focusing on its fringe "Non-Stop Comedy Block" of acquired sitcoms, TBS Superstation is turning to sprucing up its prime time. A new reality show for fall is House Rules, a Trading Spaces-type show where three teams of remodelers compete to win the house they are making over. TBS also plans 13 original movies, many of the action variety, for the coming season.
In August, Lifetime will add two new dramas to its schedule and open up a second night of originals on Saturdays. The additions come as Lifetime, queen of basic cable for months on end, has slipped in recent ratings, with first-quarter Nielsen marks off 23%. Lifetime executives contend that the new series, along with a strong slate of summer original movies, will drive "Television for Women" back up.
The four pilots: Nick & Shelley, featuring a divorced couple who are still detective partners; Wild Card, starring Joely Fisher as a former blackjack dealer trying to raise her sister's kids and investigate frauds; and Follow the Leeds, with Sharon Lawrence as a woman running a private-investigation business with her mom and sister. In 1-800 Missing former ER star Gloria Reuben teams up with a teenage psychic to solve cases.
Lifetime plans to spend $800 million on programming over the next two years. That includes plans for new reality shows, such as redecorating show Merge, where newlyweds try to combine their belongings, and Make Me Over, where friends and family propose radical hair, wardrobe and cosmetic changes.
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