Cable Nets Turn Up Heat at TCA

Los Angeles -- It’s been a big summer for cable, which has pushed its mark to new share heights nearing the 60 plateau as broadcast has sustained a record retreat.

And at this past week’s Television Critics Association press tour, cable programmers continued to turn up the heat, announcing an eclectic array of series, telefilms and specials aimed at attracting even more viewers to the medium throughout the year

In the premium sector, Home Box Office said it ordered a second season of comedy series Entourage, produced by actor Mark Wahlberg. That eight-episode series just debuted July 18 in a time slot following Six Feet Under.

“I personally believe it’s going to be the next big comedy for HBO,” chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht said.

Entourage’s order encore followed pay-rival Showtime’s pronouncement the day before that it had ordered a second season of psychiatrist drama !Huff prior to its Nov. 7 premiere.

Albrecht also bemoaned the fact there will be no Sex and the City reunion movie, calling it “a very unfortunate situation.” He said writer Michael Patrick King was working on a script, and the principal cast members had signed contracts to reprise their roles. But when King needed a delay to complete the script, actress Kim Catrall said no, according to Albrecht.

Critics were dismayed when Albrecht also confirmed that it would be at least early 2006 before new episodes of mob series The Sopranos would arrive.

“It’s like the next Harry Potter book -- you’ll have to wait for it and be grateful,” he added. Reruns and DVDs will keep fans interested until scripts are polished and shot, he said.

As for original movies, HBO will deliver a biopic, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, starring Geoffrey Rush as the mercurial comic, along with Charlize Theron and Emily Watson, in December.

The cable portion of the TCA concluded a three-week orgy of press conferences by television networks most noted for claims by executives at ABC and NBC that Fox is pirating reality-show ideas -- a charge Fox executives then staunchly denied, noting that networks are often pitched multiple versions of the same idea.

Then came the cable networks, many of which had duplicative concepts but declined to enter into similar squabbles.

Nearly identical series are due for A&E Network (Dog the Bounty Hunter) and HBO (Family Bonds), focusing on families that work together as bounty hunters; The Learning Channel (Body Work) and E! Entertainment Television (Dr. 90210) have plastic-surgery shows; and TBS will have a reality version of Gilligan’s Island while VH1 goes In Search of the Partridge Family.

One controversy that was addressed during the cable presentations was Sci Fi’s recent “documentary” revealed to be a hoax designed to create conversation about the upcoming theatrical release by M. Night Shyamalan, The Village.

Before she began her network’s presentation, president Bonnie Hammer, noting that she’d had a very challenging week, said she wanted to apologize to the television press.

“We would never intentionally deceive any of you,” she said, adding that the tape sent out to writers in mid-July to promote the show hinted that the documentary was not real. “It’s been a painful lesson. It will never happen again.”

She and other NBC Universal cable executives went on to focus reporters’ attention on network high points, noting that the group is the “fastest-growing basic-cable group in the nation.”

The claim was based on data that Bravo has doubled its viewership from one year ago (and lowered its median viewer age from 43.5 to about 36); USA Network has averaged a 1.0 total-day rating for the last four quarters; and individual shows such as limited series The 4400 have topped broadcast rivals (except sister network NBC, they noted).

Sci Fi executives hope to replicate the success of their past miniseries, Dune, with another project based on the Earthsea books by writer Ursula LeGuin. Its cast includes Danny Glover, Isabella Rossellini, Kristin Kreuk and Shawn Ashmore.

Other buzz-worthy announcements from Los Angeles included:

• BBC America: The network is importing talk show-improv comedy The Kumars at No. 42, which will be seen in its original form. Fox failed in its attempts to Americanize the concept for the broadcast network by changing the title family to Hispanics and dubbing it The Ortegas. The adaptation never made the broadcast schedule even though other countries, including Australia and Holland, have successfully adapted the premise for local consumption.

• Bravo: Clothing designers compete for a magazine spread and a runway show in Project Runway with judge/host/model Heidi Klum.

• Cartoon Network: ThePowerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken is developing Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends for the network.

• Court TV: Hip Hop Justice will explore the issue of “cultural profiling,” according to producer Russell Simmons, which leads law-enforcement agencies to label hip-hop and rap performers as criminals.

• College Sports Television: The network said it’s broadening its programming by presenting shows focusing on other areas of campus competition, such as debating, a cappella singing and karaoke championships.

• Discovery Channel: Virtual History will examine the actions of the world’s four greatest leaders on July 20, 1944. On that date, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a mild stroke, Winston Churchill mulled using poison gas against the Germans, Adolph Hitler faced an assassination attempt and Josef Stalin planned the Russian Army’s march through Europe. The special utilizes live actors, with their faces replaced by computer-generated graphic masks of the leaders and their dialog created from archival documents.

Producers said they hope one day to do a similar special, using photographs to animate historic figures of whom no moving images exist, such as Abraham Lincoln.

• Discovery Health Channel: The digital network will begin an advocacy program promoting organ donorship with the debut of Gift of Life Sept. 23. The show focuses on donor families and their recipients.

• ESPN: The sports giant will continue its foray into original-movie production with Hustle, the Pete Rose story, starring Tom Sizemore, in September, and a Dale Earnhardt biopic in December starring Barry Pepper.

• Fine Living: In partnership with the magazine, the service will premiere Travel+Leisure World’s Best, a survey of the finest hotels, cities, cruise lines and other travel subjects, Aug. 1

• National Geographic Channel: The fall programming lineup will be the biggest in the network’s history. Series will include Interpol Investigates, Expeditions to the Edge, MegaStructures, Naked Science and Air Emergency. Specials will include The Diva Mummy, on the world’s best preserved body, and Tycoon Toys.

President Laureen Ong noted that MSNBC’s contract to carry National Geographic Explorer has now concluded, so now NGC will be the only destination for its branded product

• Sundance Channel: Crews are at the Democratic National Convention this week in Boston shooting footage for Tanner on Tanner, a sequel to the Robert Altman series on a fictional presidential candidate, Tanner ’88. The new series will begin Oct. 5.

• TLC: The makeover craze is extended to mom-and-pop shops in Taking Care of Business, scheduled for October.

• Turner Network Television: Writing partners William H. Macy and Steven Schachter, who were responsible for last year’s Emmy Award-winning Door to Door, will return to TNT in November with The Wool Hat, a retelling of a story by Jackie Gleason that was filmed in 1962 under the name Gigot. Macy said the name was changed because it sounded too much like theatrical bomb Gigli.

• Trio: The network will launch its first original series, Pilot Season, an improvisational comedy with Sarah Silverman and director-star Sam Seder, Sept. 6.

• USA: An updated take on Frankenstein turns the monster into the good guy and its creator into the madman. It’s positioned as a “limited series,” but it could be picked up as a longer-term skein. It stars Adam Goldberg and Parker Posey and will debut in October.

And executives hinted that The 4400 could be extended to a full-series format.