Cable Promotes Celebrity and Crime

The TCA critics tour sees stars everywhere, while Michael Jackson’s trial draws networks’ attention
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TV scribes at the Television Critics Association winter tour got a sneak peek at what 30 cable networks have on tap. ESPN and CNN are offering new celebrity shows. FX added Glenn Close to The Shield and renewed Nip/Tuck, while Bravo, HBO and Cartoon Network pitched parody shows about stars. And that’s just for openers.

Two giants, ESPN and CNN, kicked off TCA with a look at future star-studded programming. Original series and nightly broadcasts, all based on Hollywood happenings, are in the works. ESPN announced plans for ESPN Hollywood, a sports/entertainment show on ESPN2, which will devote a half-hour each night to trends, rumors and gossip on athletes as celebrities. The show premieres May 9 at 6 p.m. ET.

As part of its Headline Prime lineup, CNN Headline News will air a new prime time block of feature-style news reports, including Showbiz Tonight, a live, hour-long show with in-depth coverage of the day’s entertainment stories, beginning Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. Co-hosted by A.J. Hammer and Karyn Bryant in New York, Showbiz Tonight covers a range of entertainment fare, from television to movies to the Internet. (MSNBC announced similar Hollywood-news shows last week.)

The reason for Headline News’ programming shift is strategic. The network is facing increased competition in cable news, says Ken Jautz, EVP of the CNN News Group, who promised the show would not be “simply celebrity news.”

On the E! front, the entertainment-devoted network recently cut back on its nightly news show E! News Live, canning five staff members and announcing it would no longer be live. Instead, the network beefed up its star power with Hollywood Poker Night, an hour-long weekly series in which three celebrities and their best friends play cards.

MICHAEL JACKSON TRIAL

The other big celebrity news is the trial of Michael Jackson on child-molestation charges that begins Jan. 31. E! plans to air day-late reenactments from court transcripts of the trial through a partnership with BSkyB. “I understand why you’re laughing,” E! President and CEO Ted Harbert told critics aghast at the proposition. But he insists that taking verbatim transcripts “is probably one of the least examples of blurring the lines between news and entertainment.”

Court TV is also following the Jackson crime drama. It will air a one-hour documentary called Michael Jackson’s Mind in February, in which friends and experts analyze the pop star’s bizarre behavior. “Everywhere you look, there will be Michael Jackson,” says Marc Juris, Court TV’s general manager of programming and marketing. He calls E!’s show “interesting, but challenging.”

“I understand what they’re trying to do,” says Juris, “but just doing reenactments will create a level of expectation for the viewer. Instead of analyzing the case, they’ll get caught up in the details.”

CNN will also report on Jackson’s legal mess. Jim Walton, president of the CNN News Group, says, “We will do our very best to be responsible in our coverage.” He says a lot of cable networks have taken “the free candy when there’s great interest in a particular story.”

MOCK THE STARS

After recently announcing a six-episode unscripted series about Kathy Griffin’s attempts to keep her career afloat, Bravo has unveiled a deal with the comic. Kathy Griffin: D List Special, a one-hour comedy show, details the celeb-basher’s take on Hollywood. (Not that Griffin is suffering from the bottom-feeder blues. E! added her to its red-carpet coverage of Sunday’s Golden Globes.)

Both Showtime and HBO have celebrity parody shows coming up, too. Showtime’s improvised Fat Actress lampoons the weight struggles of an exaggerated version of Kirstie Alley as she fights to revive her career. It debuts March 6. And this summer, HBO’s The Comeback, a scripted show that spoofs both the reality and sitcom genres, stars Friends’ Lisa Kudrow. She plays a washed-up sitcom actress who films a reality show about her re-entry to network TV. But don’t cite any similarities between the two, begs Comeback co-creator and former Sex and the City mastermind Michael Patrick King. He promised critics a dollar each for not harping on the likeness.

Despite the star-heavy inventory, HBO Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht bristled at the idea that the celebrity-themed original programming was intentional. Besides The Comeback, the network already airs Unscripted (about struggling actors), Entourage (about an up-and-coming actor) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (about Seinfeld’s former executive producer, Larry David). “The show-business part of [the programming] is, I assure you, completely coincidental,” he says. HBO picked them because they each “shed some light on the human condition.”

Other actors are also using cable to parody the stars. Seth Green’s new show, robot chicken, will premiere in Cartoon Network’s late-night block Adult Swim beginning Feb. 20 at 11:30 p.m. Britney Spears, Burt Reynolds and Ryan Seacrest are among the celebrities re-created in clay and used in tongue-in-cheek skits. Citizen Spears, for example, juxtaposes the pop singer’s life and times over a Citizen Kane backdrop. Green describes his program as “a tightly packed ADD-type of television lampooning pop-culture events.”

Of course, not all cable networks are focusing on celebrity news or celebrity crime. Several are adding big names to their prime time lineups. For instance, Glenn Close joins The Shield in its fourth season, beginning in March. “I have huge respect for television,” she says. “I refuse to be a snob about it. As an actor, I go where great writing is. That’s the bottom line.”

FX NABS BIG NAMES

FX continues to prove itself a worthy opponent to HBO in its ability to hire impressive casts. The entire Nip/Tuck production team has signed on for a third and fourth season, and the network will launch a fourth drama this summer: either Thief, starring Emmy-winner Andre Braugher, or Over There, a Stephen Bochco war drama set in Iraq. FX also hopes to launch two half-hour original comedies, plus its Morgan Spurlock unscripted show, 30 Days, later this summer. FX has also nabbed Helen Hunt to star in its original movie 100 Days of Darkness, about the Rwandan genocide.

And despite claims that reality’s popularity is fading, several cable networks see value in mixing lower-wattage stars with reality fare. In Oxygen’s new show Mr. Romance, Fabio will coach a team of beefcake boys on how one can win a shot as a cover boy for a Harlequin novel. Singer Wayne Newton, meanwhile, will spend his time weeding through wannabe Vegas stars on E!’s The Entertainer. And not to be outdone, MTV has slated singer Nick Lachey and Blink 182’s Travis Barker for new reality shows set to debut in April.

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