HBO Does Things Its Way

Other cable nets prepare more-conventional fare for TV critics' tour

The next-generation HBO dramas have one thing in common with the cable network's established hits The Sopranos and Sex and the City: They aren't quite broadcast-network material.

On HBO, "the point of view, the material, the way we produce" are all different from those of broadcast productions, says Executive Vice President of Programming Carolyn Strauss. "If you can make it for network, we don't make it."

HBO's two newest shows, Carnivale
and K Street, both debuting Sept. 14, seem to heed that guideline. TV critics will get an early glimpse at the newest HBO shows and other new cable fare this week at the Television Critics Association's twice-annual gathering in Los Angeles.

Carnivale is a period drama, following a traveling circus across the U.S. Dust Bowl in 1934. The series centers on two characters, a preacher and a former chain-gang member, who Strauss says represent "a creature of light and a creature of darkness." HBO has ordered 12 hour-long episodes.

"We're taking a big swing with this piece," she admits. "But we think we have something that is very rich."

K Street
also is ambitious, even for HBO. The half-hour show, the brainchild of producer Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney who executive-produce, explores the Washington, D.C., political scene through a fictional political-consulting firm.

There's a twist, though: The 10-episode series will feature real-life political operatives James Carville and Mary Matalin alongside fictional and real characters. Each week, K Street's
creators will pick issues to cover, go out and shoot in Washington for two days, and air that Sunday.

Of course, other cable networks are armed with their own new, perhaps more conventional scripted fare. On Aug. 2, after a year-long pilot-and-development process, Lifetime Television unwraps dramas 1-800-Missing, featuring a crime-fighting duo of an FBI agent and a psychic teen, and Wild Card, starring Joely Fisher as a strong-willed woman who takes on raising her sister's kids and a new career as an insurance-fraud investigator.

The shows are a bit of a departure for Lifetime, says Executive Vice President of Entertainment Barbara Fisher. "We're finding a lot of room for humor. We don't have as much lightness on our air as we should."

Later this summer, ESPN tosses up its first scripted drama: Playmakers, an 11-episode series about a fictional pro football team off the field. Playmakers
is a new game for ESPN. The sports net has experimented with reality shows and original movies but never a drama. The series kicks off Aug. 26.

Never one to follow the crowd, Comedy Central plans another scripted animated show. Kid Notorious, debuting Oct. 22, stars and follows the antics of Hollywood legend Robert Evans. It was important, says Comedy's Senior Vice President of Original Programming Lauren Corrao, that Kid Notorious
didn't try to mimic hit South Park. "We are conscious to have it very different and look very different." Comedy is also preparing a second new animated show, House Arrest, for later this year.

Other scripted dramas being previewed this week include USA Network's Peacemakers, premiering July 30 and starring Tom Berenger as an Old West detective learning modern methods, and Showtime's The L Word, a relationship drama about young straight and gay women in West Hollywood, Calif.

Also on tap for the press tour are several new lifestyle shows. Lifetime will introduce redecorating show Merge,
where newlyweds combine belongings, hosted by actress Lisa Rinna. Bravo will unveil its talked-about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,
where five gay style experts makeover a straight man. WE: Women's Entertainment has Courtney Cox-produced Mix It Up, which helps friends and family mesh their possessions.
And TLC, the network that claims to own the lifestyle genre, also has a new series. TLC is dipping into dating with Date Patrol, a BBC format that helps a person improve his or her image and outlook to increase dating potential. New fringe strip Clean Sweep
will help couples clear out clutter after the first few years of marriage.

TLC Executive Vice President and General Manager Roger Marmat says all his lifestyle shows have to be entertaining and smart but, they also have a secret weapon in Trading Spaces, the biggest lifestyle show on cable: "Given the platform we have to launch these shows, we have a huge leg up." Date Patrol
kicks off Sept. 20, right after Trading Spaces.