Cable's Catching a New Non-Scripted Wave

Bill Maher, whose opinions cost him a job after 9/11, is ready for the late-night freedom he can find on HBO. The satirist, whose late-night act Politically Incorrect
was bounced from ABC last spring, can speak his mind—and forget about offending advertisers—with his new HBO show, Real Time With Bill Maher, starting Feb. 21.

HBO is often applauded by creators of shows like The Sopranos
and Oz
for granting more creative license than broadcast, or even basic-cable channels, can offer. Maher ought to test the limits. (On Comedy Central, where Politically Incorrect
began, his problem was only his language, not his opinion.)

Maher says ABC never censored him either, and he was free to say whatever he pleased. "Of course, I got fired. There's that little downside to it," he quipped last week at the Television Critics Association gathering in Los Angeles. With HBO, he added, "the great thing is they want me to do what I do."

The beginning of the end came after the 9/11 terrorist attacks for his on-air comments about U.S. bombings in Afghanistan, which some critics decried as unpatriotic. Six days after the attack, Maher proclaimed, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

Maher apologized later, but several ABC affiliates quit running the show, and advertisers dropped out.

At HBO, he gets 20 live shows on Friday nights where Maher will have a monologue, dish comedic dirt with a rotating panel of guests, interview newsmakers and spotlight young comedians. And say what he chooses.

"Bill got in to a bit of trouble saying things on broadcast. Hopefully, HBO is a place where he can live freely," said HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht.

Of course, opinionated talk-show hosts are nothing new, but, along with Maher, cable is welcoming a few more candid voices. Former pro-basketball great Charles Barkley, who has been a studio analyst for TNT, now hosts his own pregame show, Listen Up!,
where he comments on politics, entertainment and, of course, sports. And on ESPN, bombastic Jim Rome, a former Fox Sports personality, will host a new topical show, Rome Is Burning, beginning in May.

Talk shows were just one breed of non-scripted reality programming on display last week at the press tour. In fact, cable has worked a little in reverse of broadcast networks. Scripted drama series had been a staple of broadcast networks; they're brand new for cable. Conversely, non-scripted or reality-based shows, from Court TV's gavel-to-gavel coverage to E! Entertainment Television's Talk Soup
to MTV's Real World,
have been cable's sustenance for years.

Reality gets a bum rap, said producer Bruce Nash, who created Meet the Folks
for NBC and has a new reality show, My Life as a Sitcom, for ABC Family. "It gets defined, unfortunately, by a narrow group of shows that make everyone kind of say 'yuk' to the genre."

Cable's latest crop of reality, unlike broadcast's latest offerings like Joe Millionaire
and The Surreal Life, is a bit gentler. On My Life as a Sitcom, debuting on Jan. 20 as part of a new reality block, no one gets shamed or swallows bugs. Instead, real families compete to star in a sitcom based on their lives. "And yet, it's compelling," said Nash. "It's interesting. It's funny."

If viewers agree, ABC Family has the option to make a regular sitcom out of the reality family. ABC Family is offering some broadcast reality, as well, with plans to repurpose ABC's Celebrity Mole
and The Bachelorette, sprucing them up with behind-the-scenes footage and commentary.

E! opted for a tamer subject for its latest reality sitcom, The Michael Essany Show. The series follows the weekly life of 19-year-old Michael Essany of Valparaiso, Ind., as he prepares to host his weekly Tonight Show
(or is it Wayne's World?)-styled cable access show, taped in his parent's living room. Mom and dad serve as the crew.

We see him prepping for the show, booking his own guests and writing the material. The net does have the option to take Essany's variety show itself and telecast that. Essany
will debut with the second season of The Anna Nicole Show
in March.

ESPN is going along for the ride with former pro-basketball great and NBA announcer Bill Walton with Bill Walton's Long Strange Trip
(Walton is a devoted Grateful Dead fan). The seven-episode series, set to debut Feb. 2, follows Walton as he works the NBA beat, hangs out at home and travels the country.

There are a few makeover and dating reality shows coming to cable. In March, WE: Women's Entertainment's Single in the City: Los Angeles
features 12 Southern California girls looking for love. TLC will solve fashion emergencies with What Not To Wear, a new Saturday-night companion for hit Trading Spaces. And, in what Game Show Network chief Rich Cronin bills as "Project Greenlight
meets The Osbournes," Game Show this spring will follow the daily exploits of Lingo
host Chuck Woolery for a new reality series Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned.