Reality and drama share center stage

While denying the economy's effect on programming, cable network execs show decreased risk tolerance
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When cable nets unveil fall shows to television critics in Pasadena this week, they promise to deliver on this year's hot reality and drama programming trends. But the presentations come right as the cable upfront is about to break, probably even as the executives are hawking their wares.

Despite gloomy economic forecasting, network executives say weaker ad sales will have a minimal effect on fall programming. Yet they admit they have tightened their promotional and marketing budgets, and a soft upfront could hinder programming plans for next year. Some say it's also making cable networks less adventurous.

"Now's not the time to cut things but to do smart things," said TNT General Manager Steve Koonin. "You want to make sure you have sure bets, and it lessens the amount of risk you can take." Earlier this summer, TNT shelved plans for a second season of financial drama Bull
and halted production on another original, Breaking News.

This fall, there will be some reality shows reminiscent of CBS' Survivor,
including USA's Combat Missions, which comes from Survivor
producer Mark Burnett. Other channels are stretching the reality idea and adapting it to their own niche. For example, Animal Planet's new series, Animal Precinct, shadows New York City's animal-law-enforcement unit, while Food Network's upcoming Cooking School Stories
follows six would-be chefs through their final semester at a top culinary school.

Niche networks claim their reality shows are higher-brow, billing their reality as storytelling rather than stunting.

"In the network world, reality isn't exactly real; it's highly edited and highly formatted," said John Ford, president of Discovery Networks content group. "We tell great stories that are real and not manufactured."

Reality shows also have given new life to documentary specials and series. Viewers are more interested in events and stories, perfect fodder for specialized cable networks.

Dramatic series and specials also lead fall programming. Some are originals, such as HBO's long-awaited World War II series Band of Brothers
and A&E's Victoria and Albert
miniseries on Britain's historic royal couple. Others are key off-net acquisitions, including NYPD Blue
on Court TV and TNT and The Practice
on FX.

All these original productions and high-profile acquisitions demand extensive promotions and marketing. A weak upfront could pinch plans to hype fall programming.

"If it's really soft and we're not getting a high sellout, it won't make a lot of sense to pour a lot of money into a show where we haven't sold a lot of advertising," said Discovery's Ford.

A softer upfront forces network executives to be more conservative. High-risk projects and outlandish promotional campaigns fall off the table.

While network brass encourages conserving resources, everybody understands the danger in cutting back too much. Short-term savings can undermine a channel's future value to advertisers. It's important to keep producing high-quality originals and buying popular off-nets and movies so that, when the economy bounces back, networks still have attractive offerings. The result will be a delicate balancing act over the next year.

For now, though, networks want to focus on what's going well: their fall slates. Here's a look at fall programming highlights for some cable nets:

Lifetime

The women's network will have original movies every month and two new shows, Lifetime Now, a magazine series, and a women's health series.

USA

Survivor
producer Mark Burnett's new reality series Combat Missions
pits members of America's elite military forces in a 15-week competition. Charmed
star Shannen Doherty stars in the original movie Another Day
in October.

TNT

The network is relying on original and acquired movies to fill its fall schedule. It has the cable premieres of The Matrix, Stepmom
and Analyze This. Two original movies, Call Me Claus, starring Whoopi Goldberg, and Pretender: Island of the Haunted, debut in December.

Cartoon Network

The "Adult Swim" late-night prime time block targets, obviously, older viewers beginning with four new series in October. The Justice League of America, a series based on the comic-book series starring the Superfriends, begins in November.

TBS

New episodes of Ripley's Believe It or Not!
and two original movies, Robin Cook's Acceptable Risk
and Invincible, are the network's top fall offerings.

A&E

Two new series put A&E's spin on reality shows. Minute by Minute
retells historical events through the eyes of witnesses, and Ultimate Reality
gives people with dreams of bigger things a means to pursue their goal.

FX

A nightly dose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ally McBeal
and The Practice
and an original movie, The Sins of the Father, which premieres in December, headline FX's fall slate.

TNN

Its makeover continues with the off-net acquisitions of Star Trek: The Next Generation
and Baywatch. A new original series, Famed for 15, looks at people who have had their proverbial 15 minutes in the spotlight.

Oxygen

Actress Carrie Fisher stars in a new series, her first major television effort, and Oprah Winfrey hosts a new series, Everyday Angels.

HBO

Ten-part miniseries Band of Brothers
documents a famous World War II army unit, and The Mind of a Married Man, a Sex and the City-style comedy about marriage from a man's perspective.

MTV

A new reality show, Flipped, takes two people from different backgrounds and immerses them in each other's lives.

Discovery Networks

Discovery Channel's special Weather Extreme
explores what would happen if weather disasters hit American cities. On Animal Planet, reality-based Animal Precinct
features NYC's ASPCA law-enforcement unit. TLC's new series Buyology
examines the social history of humans as consumers.

History Channel

History vs. Hollywood
compares the stories told in movies with actual historical events. American Classics
explores American icons, and new episodes of The History of Britain
explore the country's history from 1600 to 1800.

Nickelodeon

A new preschool show, Oswald,
uses the voice of Fred Savage as an animated blue octopus. There are also new episodes of Rugrats
and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Food Network

Unwrapped
takes food lovers to offbeat places associated with food, including factories and museums. In Cooking School Stories, six culinary students at St. Johnson & Wales University work to become top chefs.

WE: Women's Entertainment

Naomi Judd will host a new afternoon programming block that includes two new series, House Calls
and Spiritual Journeys. A travel show, Journey Women off the Map, offers women in their solo explorations.

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