Beefed up and tweaked

Sci-Fi will spend nearly $146 million this year on monsters, vampires and wrestling robots and a bevy of other programs and schedule revamps. Sci-Fi's parent net, USA, will drop around $400 million in search of its next big hit.

Both networks rolled out new programming initiatives in a joint upfront event last week, with the greater emphasis on the geek-niched Sci-Fi rather than general-entertainment giant USA Network.

The 2000 expenditure marks Sci-Fi's first program budget to break the $100 million mark, up from $85.7 million in 1999 and around $73 million in 1998. The revamped lineup includes 22 hour-long episodes of a new original series in the Good vs. Evil vein, only with monsters instead of people in purgatory; Matthew Blackheart: Monster Smasher, from New Line Television, is scheduled to premiere early next year. The latest miniseries added to Sci-Fi's list is Ultraviolet, six hours of contemporary vampire lore scheduled to start in prime time July 31 and run through August 2. Previously announced miniseries include Frank Herbert's Dune, which will air in December, and Taken, directed by Steven Spielberg, scheduled for next year.

Perhaps most frightening of all is Sci-Fi's plan to simulcast with USA the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, live from New York City. Nearly 35,000 of the city's most bizarrely bedecked revelers march through the streets, while 1.5 million equally bizarre spectators watch from the sidewalks. The cablecast will mark the parade's first full-fledged, nationwide television coverage.

In a wildly ambitious scheduling move, Sci-Fi will repeat nothing in prime time from June into early September. Executive Vice President and General Manager Bonnie Hammer says the channel finally has enough original and acquired episodes to pull off a no-repeat summer.

The no-repeat stretch kicks off with an all-original Friday night on June 9, beginning with the debut of Invisible Man, followed by Farscape and Lexx. Saturdays will be devoted to movies, miniseries and acquired series like Brimtstone and Prey.

Alien-invasion horror thriller First Wave will lead into Sunday prime time. Sciography, Sci-Fi's version of Biography, will appear Sundays at 9 p.m., beginning July 16. Exposure, the short-film vehicle, will be added to the Wednesday lineup at 10 p.m., and Crossing Over With John Edward, the talk show with the dead, will round out weeknights at 11 p.m., beginning July 9. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays will still be devoted to acquired series, but none will be repeated within the three-month period.

Sci-Fi started stacking those acquired series last year, with back-to-back episodes of Zena or The Outer Limits running on a given night. The strategy has bumped up ratings by as much as 33% or more, so Hammer will stack daytimes starting in June. Weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. will be all Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica or any one of about 35 series in the Sci-Fi library.

Finally, taking a cue from a recent pay-per-view flirtation with battling robots, Sci-Fi will bring its own version of robotic wrestlers to basic cable in early 2001. Tentatively called Robodeath, the one-hour special could be the seeds of a franchise if it proves popular, Hammer said.

Robodeath sounds suspiciously like the stuff of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation, only with machines instead of steroids. The WWF remains the biggest draw and the biggest programming question mark for USA, which filed suit to keep McMahon from taking his gladiators to CBS. The first hearing on the suit is scheduled for early June. Until the court decides differently, USA Cable President Stephen Chao says, "we are assuming the WWF is staying on the schedule."

The loss of wrestling will not destroy the network, but it will cost it about two-tenths of a rating point in prime time at a cost of about $33 million in ad revenue, according to an estimate of revenue per rating point from Paul Kagan Associates. A spokeswoman for Cox Communications says, "USA has very good and varied programming, and we're confident, if they lose wrestling, they'll have plenty of programming. We don't think losing wrestling will be a problem."

Chao will continue his quest for an original hit with The Huntress, starring Annette O' Toole as a widow-turned-bounty hunter, and Miriam Teitelbaum, Homicide, a drama based on the life of a Jewish-American homicide detective. Both will appear this summer.

Three previously announced pilots may produce offspring: the "Spy vs. Spy"-like Kill, Kill, Kill; a puppet-populated show called Road Hogs; and Manhattan, Arizona, a fish-out-of-water drama formerly known as Brown Parcels of Land.