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TV Guide Channel Gets 'Surreal'

As part of an ongoing effort to evolve from a listings service into a vital programmer, TV Guide Channel will rerun episodes of The Surreal Life and its related group of programming beginning this summer.

The network has a deal in place to acquire the cable and satellite telecast rights from production and distribution company Debmar/Mercury, which will now turn its attention to cutting deals with stations.

Featuring a cast of former celebrities living together in a house, The Surreal Life aired on The WB from 2003 until the third season of original airings moved to VH1, which still runs it. Cast members Christopher Knight (Peter on The Brady Bunch) and rapper Flavor Flav have gone on to star in spinoffs.

The most recent franchisee, I Love New York, drew 4.4 million viewers for its January premiere, the most-watched season premiere in VH1 history.

The TV Guide Channel deal includes the eight seasons of The Surreal Life, as well as related shows My Fair Brady, Flavor of Love, Strange Love, I Love New York and Fame Games, a Surreal Life all-stars edition.

With a current total of 133 episodes, the deal gives TV Guide Channel more than 100 new hours of programming. The network also gets rights to re-air them through 2010.

Although the deal includes shows yet to be run on VH1, that network retains a two-year exclusivity window on new installments of the franchise.

Debmar/Mercury has held domestic cable- and broadcast-network syndication distribution rights to the shows since August 2006, when it acquired the franchise from 51 Minds Entertainment LLC and Mindring Productions.

The company initially failed to secure national broadcast clearances for the franchise. Debmar/Mercury Co-President Mort Marcus says the sale of Law & Order to stations in mostly late-night time periods left few slots for the Surreal Life franchise. “No one thought Law & Order was going to come out. It took up an hour we thought was going to be available.”

Starting as soon as this fall, Debmar/Mercury, in what Marcus describes as “almost a test,” will roll out the library as a strip to 15-20 markets in a series of individual, all-cash deals. If the shows do well, he hopes to gain the clearances for a national rollout down the road.

The TV Guide arrangement came out of talks between the network and Debmar/Mercury that began in October 2006. There were other suitors, including VH1, although none of the others were major cable networks, such as TNT or FX.

TV Guide Channel will air the shows in a late-night block at both 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. ET on weeknights beginning in July. The network plans to strip the shows season by season, although it will also run some marathons on weekends and holidays to try to gain momentum for the new acquisition.

The first season of The Surreal Life will kick things off. The episodes will run in the time period for the first month of the deal.

“This really bolsters late night, where we needed some help,” says TV Guide Channel President Ryan O'Hara, noting that the network's current late-night lineup has been “pretty much repeats of primetime shows” like TV week-in-review show The 411.

O'Hara hopes that the move bolsters other dayparts, as well. The network has added more programming and recently announced its own reality search series, America's Next Producer.

The Surreal Life deal, he says, “is yet another important building block.”