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Cable's fall line

After an 18-month hiatus, Tony Soprano and his New Jersey families are finally coming back. The HBO mob drama, returning for its fourth season Sept. 15, headlines cable premieres this fall.

For new scripted series, though, cable viewers will have to wait 'til next year.

Cable nets are used to saving their best for summer, when broadcasters turn to repeats and cheaper reality stunts (some of which, like Fox's American Idol
and CBS's Survivor
turn into great big hits).

Still, for cable, summer is where the action is, and, despite broadcast's attempts to grab viewers, cable viewership climbed to a 54 share for the week of June 17-23, compared with a 37 share for broadcast nets. Cable's triumph is fueled by strong ratings for original series like Dead Zone
on USA and Witchblade
on TNT.

"Basic cable has been looked at as a B-player," said USA President Doug Herzog. "We're proving we can go pound-for-pound with pay and broadcast networks."

But Herzog and other execs, who meet with TV critics on their annual press tour in Pasadena starting this week, admit that cable's not ready to wage war against broadcast's new fall season. With an original drama upwards of $1 million per episode, running a drama in the fall is just too risky.

With Dead Zone
and a second series, Monk
(premiering July 17), this summer, USA is keeping its fall commitments light. Made-for-TV movie Murder in Greenwich
, slated for fourth quarter, is based on Mark Furhman's book on the murder of Martha Moxley and investigation of recently convicted Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel.

Original movies and miniseries will be the main cable attraction this fall. Probably the biggest event is Steven Spielberg's $40 million, 10-part Taken, tracing three generations of alien encounters, on Sci Fi Channel.

From the broad-based heavyweights come mega-productions viewers have come to expect. A&E bows two-part epic The Lost World, a 1911 search for dinosaurs in the Amazon, in October and futuristic classic Lathe of Heaven
in September.

TNT travels back in time to Manhattan in 1948, when the TV industry was blossoming, with The Big Time,
slated for October. The queen of made-for-TV movies, Lifetime, debuts fact-based Obsessed
in September, starring Jenna Elfman as a medical writer suffering from erotomania, a psychological disorder in which people are convinced they are in very sexual relationships with people who, in fact, barely know them.

But movies aren't just for the big guys anymore. Comedy Central's first original flick, Porn N Chicken, about a Yale secret society that watches porn while eating fried chicken, bows in October. Court TV revisits the case of the 14-year-old questioned in the murder of his sister in The Interrogation of Michael Crowe, its second original project. ESPN is prepping its second original, a college-football-themed movie, for December.

Fall is chock full of cheaper, non-scripted originals. Discovery Channel is building popular Monster Garage
summer special into a fourth-quarter series. Rapper and Law & Order: SVU
star Ice-T will stun TLC viewers with tales of hazardous professions, like oil-fire fighting, in Beyond Tough, beginning Sept. 18. Hallmark celebrates new-baby and wedding stories with syndicated replays of Life Moments
debuting Sept. 16.

Like The Sopranos, cable's other favorite family, The Osbournes, will return to MTV this fall with 20 episodes. The celeb-reality craze it helped start is spilling over to other channels, among them E! with its Anna Nicole Smith Show. ESPN is said to be talking with Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis; VH1 is talking to Liza Minelli and David Gest about their star-studded dinner parties.