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The Hungry Hippos: New Outlets for Scripted Fare

Feeling a little down with the network TV landscape? Perhaps you are a writer with a terrific cable show written in spec, but for some reason, you feel that the cable channels can’t host such a daring vision? Well, fear not: since the TV landscape has gotten viciously competitive over the past few years, cable shows have gnawed on the ratings’ pie of the networks. It started in the summer, now it’s year-round. Sons of Anarchy besting the networks, the premiere of SyFy’s Stargate Universe crushing FOX’s Dollhouse….really, you name your example.

Success stories have duplicated for cable networks, who have thrived thanks to critically-loved scripted programming: FX, AMC, TNT, USA… And cable execs used this excellent track record to take bigger responsibilities (I’m looking at you, Kevin Reilly, formerly at FX, then at NBC and FOX).  So, we’re now gonna take a look at four of those fierce new guys in town, who have aggressively developped their dramas and comedies in the past 2 years. They are…

Cable’s Hungry Hippos

And we’re starting with the most recent newcomer:

Now, it’s a very recent premium channe that only has carriage deals with four cable operators so far: Verizon, Cox Communications, Mediacom and Charter Communications. Moreover, the official launch was last October, the day before Halloween. That didn’t prevent Mark Greenberg, formerly at Showtime and appointed president of the new venture, that unites Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM, from scaring up the competition early (see what I did there? You’d rather have not? Oh, OK.) through a development slate that already counts three intriguing projects.

Tough Trade takes place in Nashville, Tennessee, and centers on a family…rather, a dynasty of artists that are left on the verge of bankruptcy after decades of excess. Their only saving grace is the black sheep of the family, a former country artist turned alt-rock crooner (a la Chris Cornell maybe?). Lead role goes to Sam Shepard (The Pledge, Black Hawk Down), and True Blood writer Chris Offutt penned the pilot, which will be shepherded by Jenji Kohan from Weeds fame (and probably a favorite of Greenberg, we guess).

Second project was announced this week. This time, it’s shock jock extraordinaire Larry Charles (Borat, Brüno) who will direct and exec produce a half-hour comedy pilot called iCon. It will center on a scheming Silicon Valley titan that may (or may not….oh, who am I kidding) be loosely based on the life and career of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Here, the writer hired is unlikely, as it’s Dan Lyons, a Newsweek editor that has created a fake Steve Jobs blog and has even made a satirical book lampooning Jobs. Coincidentally, iCon is also the name of a bio book chronicling the rise of Jobs. According to Mike Fleming of Deadline, “Jobs and other titans will certainly inspire iCON at its inception, but the show will lampoon the larger hi-tech world”. iSkeptic.

The third one just was announced. It’s a miniseries based on Ayn Rand’s 1952 epic 750-page novel The Fountainhead. It is centered on the rivalry between two architects and the reporter that chronicles it in a thriving newspaper industry.

Belly prognosis: Great. The three projects developed show great originality: Tough Trade may show a behind-the-scenes look at the heart of country music, and the casting of Sam Shepard is intriguing. iCon has the potential on paper to be a meaner, nerdier The Office. Jury’s still out on The Fountainhead. But, being the direct lovechild of Hollywood studios, as opposed to its premium-cable opponents, Epix will rely on its limitless catalogue in case of failure.

Let’s switch to basic cable, and take a look at…

Owned in equal shares by Hearst and Disney, with a little NBC-Universal thrown into the mix, A&E has been developing dramas and scripted programming of its own for two years. It was, and still is, usually home to a lot of reality TV (Growing up Gotti, Intervention, Criss Angel Mindfreak, Dog the Bounty Hunter). The two first dramas on the air were The Cleaner, kind of a scripted version of Intervention, starring Benjamin Bratt and showrunned by Jonathan Prince (American Dreams). It lasted two seasons, but was cancelled at the end of its sophomore run. Ditto with The Beast, marketed as The Shield meets Wiseguy, and starring Patrick Swayze in his final performance. Due to his untimely cancer and death, the show was cancelled at the end of its first run.

But did those faux pas stop our Hungry Hippo Bob DiBitetto, president of A&E Networks? Hell no! If you took a look at the press release recapping their scripted development slate, last May, it was a catalogue of prestigious names. Kevin Costner! Jerry Bruckheimer! Anthony LaPaglia! Shawn Ryan!

10 months later, all those projects are dead and buried. It came down to two dramas: The Quickening, about, and I quote: “A bi-polar LAPD detective must wrestle with the fact that the medication she has been prescribed makes her “normal” but her disorder, with all the paranoia and risks it comes with, makes her extraordinary.” It was written by Jennifer Salt, formerly on the staff of Nip/Tuck. The other one was Sugarloaf, written by Clifton Campbell (formerly of Profiler and White Collar) and starring Matt Passmore (lead in season 2 of Australian mob drama Underbelly) and Kiele Sanchez (Nikki from Lost….was that a mean credit reminder?). This one is about a homicide cop wrongfully accused of having an affair with his Captain’s wife…and transferred to a small town in Florida. Crime-solver reluctantly transferred to the Sunshine State….sounds eerily similar to Burn Notice? Yep, and that’s also the one show who got picked up for 13 episodes this summer. Other than that? Nothing in sight.

Belly prognosis: Mild, or weak, depending on your optimism. The disappointing visibility in the ratings and the media of their dramas freezed the enthusiasm of our Hungry Hippo. After a flamboyant upfront in 2009, with many established names and interesting subjects, they apparently want to put a light Burn Notice-like on air and it appears they got rid of the rest of contenders. For the channel whose slogan is “Real Life. Drama.”, the speculation for the next May upfront might be a change of slogan: “Real Life. That’s enough.”

The premium pay-per-view channel has begun his development slate with a whisper. It was a series based on the Academy Award-winning drama Crash. The thing is, Dennis Hopper didn’t have enough star power, and was met with critical despise during the course of its two seasons. It changed showrunners, passing from Glen “The Shield” Mazzara to Ira Steven “The 4400” Behr, but no dice. Cancelled without even a soul to care. It’s not alone, either: barely anyone has heard of comedy Head Case, recently cancelled after 3 seasons.

But this misstep was corrected with fresh comedy series Party Down. Carried by a head writer coming off the heels of critical darling Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas, and a talented cast of comedians (Lizzy Caplan, Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Adam Scott), it posted good reviews (66 score on Metacritic, among other things), and the network liked it well enough to give another 10-episode season — I couldn’t find any info about the ratings, FYI. And it seems that Starz has found its first hit with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the period drama starring Lucy Lawless, who averages between 850,000 and 1 million viewers every Friday. Plus, the full-frontal nudity and geysers of blood 300-style made it controversial, if not in the USA, at least in the UK, where a lobby of puritan media watchers, Media Watch UK, was trying to block it from airing. (It failed: British Bravo bought it, and has all the intentions of airing it.)

But it needed a seasoned exec, just like Epix, to take it to the next level. Enter Chris Albrecht, the fiery former HBO executive unceremoniously dumped from the pay-per-view giant after a dark story involving booze and affairs. From its first public appearence after his nomination late last year, at TCA, he understands that Starz needs to stand out from the crowd: “This is alchemy and we’re putting together our chemical formula so I’m a fan of all [Starz original] shows and they are distinct from other shows that are on other networks and they’re distinct from each other as well,” he said in this article. The development slate looks hectic, with another historical drama based on the legend of King Arthur, Camelot, slated to premiere mid-2011. Not to mention the Ridley Scott-produced Pillars of The Earth, a miniseries bought by Starz but independently financed and shot, and slated to premiere in July. It stars Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Allison Pill, all of whom had recent significant roles in past American TV shows: Kings, Eleventh Hour and In Treatment, respectively.

Belly prognosis: Great. Albrecht’s track record on HBO is unparallelled, and so far they have a strong interest in historical dramas based on key hero figures, but with a more violent and provocative twist. (Camelot is produced by the guys behind The Tudors, light on historical accuracy, but heavy on murders and humping.) On the comedy side, they can go with dark/existential comedy fairly well, since Gravity features characters that made suicide attempts, and still live to talk about it. But while pitching your show, don’t expect HBO-slick production values. For instance, Spartacus was critically mocked for his visual blood geysers, aping 300.

Part of the basic cable channels owned by Turner Entertainment, TBS has focused on off-network  comedy reruns and reality TV shows. But it has recently ramped up its original scripted development, and has a bonafide hit with Tyler Perry’s House Of Payne, and Meet The Browns, with more than 3 million viewers each week. It also broadcast 10 Items Or Less, now cancelled, and Friends-like comedy My Boys, that will be back for a fourth season this summer.

But it is featured there for its hourlong drama development, a novelty since its sister channel TNT has only hourlong dramas, and that was one of the ways you could differentiate their programming. (It also had Men Of A Certain Age, which you could classify as dramedy.) So far, four projects are in development.

Franklin and Bash stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar (fresh off the cancellation of Raising the Bar for TNT) and Breckin Meyer as lawyers who win a case against an established law firm, and effectively take them down. They are then hired by the firm’s patriarch, played by Malcolm McDowell. Glory Daze can be described as Greek set in the 1980s, where a socially inept campus freshman (Kelly Blatz, coming from the Disney series Aaron Stone, where he played the lead character) joins the wildest fraternity on the campus. SNL alum Tim Meadows has been cast, along with Julianna Guill, who made an…um…appeareance in the latest Friday the 13th remake.

In Security centers on two sisters who manage a private security company previously run by their father, while, of course, balancing their problems in their family and personal life. Journeywoman of comedy Constance Zimmer has been cast in the project, who comes from Ric Swartzlander, writer on Gary Unmarried and previously on ABC comedy Rodney, and Peter Segal, director of the third Naked Gun movie and Get Smart. It’s also counting Chris Albrecht among its producers.

Finally, from the creator of Monk, Andy Brockman, comes Uncle Nigel, about a Philadelphia cop (Gary Cole) who constantly clashes with his nephew, a rookie in the same police department who never misses an occasion to screw up (role not-yet-cast).

Belly prognosis: Kind of bright, actually. TNT has an excellent track record of developing hit dramas, and the lack of significant original hits make this Hippo hungry. And also likely to give a lot of marketing push to its new dramas, who will be lighter than what you can find on TNT. The development slate looks diverse, with just about something for everybody, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Koonin, head of Turner channels, announces a new “drama” block on TBS for the fall.

Digestive thoughts: We’re looking at cable channels with very different backgrounds, so the chances of them succeeding in launching hit shows are very different. Epix looks the hungriest of them all, having everything to prove, but they also can raise awareness of their brand with their first projects. A&E apparently bit more than he could chew with its stillborn scripted development, and cancellations of its two dramas on-air. Unless next upfront looks as busy as last year drama-wise, I wouldn’t see a lot of future in bringing shows over to them, since they seem to do fine with reality/alternative programming anyway. Starz already has a controversial hit on their hands with Spartacus, but seems to struggle with bringing viewers to its comedies. The arrival of Chris Albrecht can bring the pay-per-view channel the prestige it needs, with many historical dramas to start. Oh, and it will please stockholders too. TBS has a very diverse development slate, but one that counts proven talent (Tim Meadows, Constance Zimmer, Gary Cole, and Andy Brockman on the producing side). A channel to be counted with if you have light, “escapist” entertainment in mind, in the everlasting words of Ben Silverman.

Do you think: why would he finish an epic story with a Ben Silverman quote? I answer: why not?

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