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Cable networks renew emphasis on originality

Sunday, July 27, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- It's the not-so-secret weapon of the TV business: original series. Broadcast networks have long made originals their bread and butter, except in the summer. That allowed cable to come in and get into the series business while their broadcast competitors put out a "gone fishin'" sign.

This summer, broadcasters fought back, but they did it mostly with reality shows, many of which are performing worse than reruns of scripted series such as "CSI" and "Law & Order."

Cable continues to roll out the series, including the premieres of FX's "Nip/Tuck," A&E's "MI-5" and Comedy Central's "Reno 911!" last week.

Even the premium cable networks, founded as an outlet for theatrical releases after they leave movie theaters, realized long ago the need for original series. Now many viewers first think of HBO as home of "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" rather than as the place to see "Minority Report" on TV a year after it was in theaters.

"What our research has shown is, the longer you've had HBO, the more important theatrical movies are to you," said Chris Albrecht, chairman and CEO of HBO. "The newer the subscriber you are, the more important original programming is to you.

"With series, it was long thought at HBO that we could never compete in the series area, and yet series are the main staple, the main currency of television viewing," Albrecht continued. "We're very pleased to be able to make the headway we've made in that genre and have our stuff be considered among the best that's available anywhere. I think we've helped evolve what people perceive a series can be, and that's made our job more challenging."

At Showtime, the recent decision to hire former Fox executive-turned-independent producer Robert Greenblatt ("Six Feet Under") as programming chief demonstrates a shift toward series.

"Scripted series have become more important in our marketplace and continue to become more important, so you will see us putting more efforts there," said Matthew Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks. "You can interpret that as we're shifting from movies to series."

TNT, meanwhile, is talking about getting back into the series business after deep-sixing "Bull" and "Breaking News." The basic cable channel wrote both shows off during the merger between Time Warner and America Online. Another casualty was documentarian R.J. Cutler's "The Residents," a chronicle of real-life med school residents' experiences. Cutler said 13 episodes were produced and four completed before TNT pulled the plug. Cutler said he's on the verge of finding a new outlet to air the series.

Mark Lazarus, Turner Entertainment Group president, said scripted series are important and will be added to both TBS and TNT, but not just for the sake of having them.

"They are hard to do. The success rate is very low," Lazarus said. "We're not ignoring that original series is a place we need to be and we will be, but we're not going to run out and do dozens and dozens of development deals."

But with so much ink given to TNT's abandonment of original dramas over the past three years, are Hollywood creators wary about giving the network a second chance?

"Hesitancy, no," Lazarus said. "But are we remaking our image with some of the creative community? It's absolutely a priority. ... Part of our mission ... is to reclaim the strong relationships that we have everywhere else in the industry and not to go through this in fits and starts. That's why we're not rushing into this. We're going to be calculated, smart, and we will deliver when we go to a plan."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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