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A TV critics buffet

HBO won the prize for most ambitious cable project at the Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena last weekend. The pay network is laying out $120 million for a 10-hour WWII miniseries based on Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

It is HBO's biggest production ever, and "maybe one of the biggest single productions in television history," said Chris Albrecht, HBO's president of original programming.

Even so, it wasn't big enough to deflect curiosity about what Sopranos producer David Chase will do about the part of Livia Soprano, played by the late Nancy Marchand. "Nancy [had been] sick since the beginning of this production, so David's plan was to just keep going and let the situation play itself out," Albrecht said. "It's a terrible loss to the show, but the show will deal with it in real terms."

Loss of a far less tragic nature struck USA Network, from which WWF wrestling was wrested (as of September). USA Cable President Stephen Chao opened the network's TCA session by saying USA would remain the top cable network "with or without" the WWF, although some skeptical researchers challenge that assertion.

Meanwhile, WWF Entertainment President and CEO Linda McMahon was heralding the WWF's move to its new home at Viacom's TNN. She said Viacom guaranteed the WWF at least $8 million in off-network promotion in addition to spots on the sister nets including MTV, VH1 and, now, CBS.

"In my conversations with Tom Freston, Tom indicated to me that if you were on this planet-man, woman or child-there would be no way that you would not know that the WWF is moving to TNN and to MTV with our core programming," she said.

Other news from TCA:

Critics groaned when USA Network presented They Nest, an updated and weirded-down version of The Birds, only with cockroaches. The movie premieres on USA Tuesday, July 25. USA also previewed Attila, a four-hour miniseries about the only Hun you ever heard of. It's scheduled for January 2001, USA Cable Senior Vice President of Programming Adam Shapiro, said. Meanwhile, David Eick, USA senior vice president of original series development, has Manhattan AZ and The War Next Door, formerly known as Kill! Kill! Kill! Both series, begin on Sunday, July 23. Kagan put USA's 2000 programming costs at $600 million.

TNN will be fueled by the WWF, and the franchise will likely save it from the ratings crater into which it has been falling for nearly a year. This fall, WWF Raw Is War, frequently the highest-rated program on cable, will move from USA's Monday-night 9-11 p.m. time slot into TNN's. Two new series, WWF Livewire and WWF Superstars will appear on Saturday and Sunday mornings respectively, starting in October.

In addition to wrestling, TNN acquired 92 episodes of Starsky & Hutch for stripping at noon and 6 p.m. weekdays beginning July 31 and ordered 11 more episodes of 18 Wheels of Justice, its first original drama.

Brian Hughes, vice president of programming for TNN, said the strategy is to build a package of sports, drama, country music and the occasional fishing show to become a top-10 network in adults 18-49, up from No. 12.

Stay tuned also for The Waltons Week beginning Aug. 28, but especially look out for Bad Boys Week, hosted by Tonya Harding, and a Dysfunctional Families Week, with Gary Coleman and Danny Bonaduce.

Brian Graden, president of programming for MTV, said he hoped interactivity would set the network apart in the future, given the glut of voyeur programs.

When asked if he is concerned about the impact of shows like Survivor on MTV's voyeurism franchises, including long-running Real World, Graden said, "If I were to make a list of my top 10 concerns for MTV, that's absolutely No. 1, because you know, with the success of Survivor and Big Brother, we're about to have an absolute explosion of that kind of television.

"It's really been a bread-and-butter mainstay [for MTV] for the last five or 10 years. ... I think it set us apart because we showed the real faces of our viewers. Now we're no longer alone in doing that, so the question is: 'What is MTV's point of distinction going forward?'.... We're probably hanging our hat on interactivity."

Rounding wreaked havoc with VH1's second-quarter rating, said Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of programming and production. Because Nielsen ratings are rounded to one decimal place, VH1 registered a 33% drop in rating for second quarter. "Give'em one more number, and the drop is more like 18%," Gaspin said. That's still a drop, caused by a number of factors, he continued. Behind the Music is wearing a tad thin, Divas didn't do what it did last year, and broadcast is doing its share of Millionaire damage. Gaspin said a recovery of about 4% is already evident.

Since taking over programming at VH1, Gaspin has rolled out easily more than a dozen configurations of music docusoaps such as BTM, a format in which he's keenly interested.

"I have this fear that one of these years, I'm going to stand up here and have nothing to say except, 'We've run out of rock history to strip-mine,'" he said.

Now his big push is its $3 million movies such as Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back, about the porcine '70s rocker.

FX takes on an explosive First Amendment court case in its first original movie, Deliberate Intent. The $6 million film, airing in August, is based on the true story and stars Timothy Hutton. Peter Ligouri, president of FX, said the next movie project in the hopper for a late summer premiere is The Sight, starring Andrew McCarthy.

FOX Family is ramping up originals. These include State of Grace, a female Wonder Years from the perspective of a 40-something journalist returning to her roots. On the miniseries front, FOX Family is tackling Les Miserables for January 2001. John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu will star.

Comedy Central programming expenses will exceed $100 million this year. To prove it, Bill Hillary, Comedy's new executive vice president and general manager, showcased Mirrorball, starring the girls of Absolutely Fabulous as struggling theater actresses; Battlebots, the battling-robot franchise that bombed as a pay-per-view venture but was well-received by critics at the tour; and TV Funhouse, a collection of animation, live skits and low-brow puppetry from the mind of Robert Smigel.

Food Network is on track to have its first year of positive cash flow, confirmed Judy Girard, senior vice president and general manager of the network. Other good news for Food is that the channel will hit the 50 million-subscriber mark by the end of next month.

Since an overhaul more than a year ago, 26 new shows have been added to the schedule, including Iron Chef, the Japanese imported cook-off show; programming executives are looking to create an Americanized version. Food will spend roughly $30 million on programming in 2000, according to Kagan and other sources.

Coming to Sci-Fi in 2001: Batman (Adam West) plays the villain in a Roger Corman vehicle called Black Scorpion, and the tall-and-speaking half of Penn & Teller will host a series of specials examining the stuff of the genre in Fi-Sci with Penn Jillette: The Fiction-Science Show.

Nickelodeon is featuring Latino leads in three of its six new kids series. "About two years ago, when this current agenda was set, we wanted to make sure that we were reflecting kids'lives," said Albie Hecht, president of film and television for Nickelodeon. "As we took an inventory of our shows ... we were doing a pretty good job reflecting images of blacks and whites and Asians, but we really felt we had underrepresented Latino kids."