HBO Resurrects 'Unsolved Mysteries'

Hopes to sell refurbished episodes of popular series
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Call it “Extreme Makeover: Unsolved Mysteries.

HBO Television Distribution—reaching outside its own pay channel's original-programming ranks for the first time—and Cosgrove/Meurer Prods. are bringing back Mysteries, the granddaddy of hybrid reality/scripted crime- reenactment series.

They plan to make the classic show—laid to rest five years ago—attractive to network buyers, through major reconstructive surgery.

HBO began knocking on doors last week, offering an all-cash deal for 175 refurbished episodes of the documentary-style series about unsolved crimes and paranormal occurrences.

During its 1987-97 NBC run, the program, with its overly dramatic narrative by the late Robert Stack, helped give rise to the ripped-from-the-headlines reality (America's Most Wanted) and scripted (Law & Order, CSI) crime procedural formats still the rage today.

Mysteries' originals later aired sporadically on CBS and Lifetime until 2002, and reruns continue to appear on the cable channel in daytime. The Lifetime and Mysteries brands became enmeshed after the women's network acquired it in 1993 and ran the show in primetime for seven years.

With Lifetime's deal expiring in 2008, the producers and HBO set out to overhaul it at a time when demand for reality fare is high. The industry is bracing for a possible labor strike next year.

HBO is taking out the series without a host, believed to be a first, and will leave it up to the acquiring cable network to choose Stack's replacement, according to Scott Carlin, president of HBO's distribution wing.

Work is under way to expand the number of unsolved evergreen stories from four to five per episode, each cut down to a maximum of seven minutes. Cosgrove/Meurer and HBO are choosing their material from 900 hours of footage shot for the original 255 episodes.

They also plan to add newly produced updates—the most popular segments of the original series—that will focus on the solving of crimes and shedding new light on cold cases, which make up 60% of the stories, according to Executive Producer John Cosgrove.

Other additions include a new set, logo, music and, most important, the computerized effects needed to bring the stories up to current standards.

Carlin and Cosgrove say that new weekly original episodes are also a distinct possibility and could come as part of the initial deal or at some point later.

And Carlin trumpets the new-media possibilities provided by the show's shorter stories, which he says “perfectly lend themselves” to appearing on a revenue-generating Website. Cosgrove is looking toward the Internet as a way to get text-messaged tips from viewers.

The sales campaign for Mysteries marks the first time HBO's distribution unit has joined with outside producers on a basic-cable or syndication project. But it won't be the last: Carlin's group is negotiating to distribute other fare that he declines to disclose.

With HBO's model of providing short runs to original primetime series, Carlin says, “we don't have the same at-bats [as broadcast networks do], so we're looking at opportunistic improvisation” to keep the distribution pipeline full.

HBO acquired the distribution rights to Unsolved Mysteries from Bob Jacquemin, the former head of Disney's syndication unit, whose company nabbed the series in 1991 during a rights auction. Carlin, then a high-ranking executive at HBO sibling Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, had led his company's bid for the show.

Jacquemin held onto the rights when he left Disney last decade for DreamWorks. He recently approached Carlin, along with Disney alum and HBO TV Distribution Executive VP Tom Cerio, about adding more bells and whistles to a series that HBO's syndication chief says felt “a little long in the tooth.”

Producers shot an hour-long prototype pilot of the new Mysteries with Clancy Brown, the deep-voiced actor from HBO's Carnivale, as the host.

Brown has made it clear that he is unavailable for the series, even though Cosgrove holds out hope he can persuade him, given the right deal.

The idea of putting an entirely new wrapping on Mysteries proved attractive to Carlin and Cerio,with most of the segment production already completed.

Carlin admits to encountering some initial hesitation when HBO first set up appointments to discuss the show with networks, but reaction among the few that have seen it so far has been positive. Some potential buyers, says Cosgrove, “didn't even recognize the show.”

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