Original fare top cable priority

As more and more channels crowd the cable spectrum, the question for each of them is how to stand out from the pack. And the answer most networks have come up with is original programming.

HBO started it all, combining original programs with Hollywood movies, and Michael Fuchs, chairman and CEO, can remember the reaction.

How could you ever make original programming to compete with the networks? Don’t even try,” Fuchs recalls. “We used to go out and speak to cable affiliates and they thought we were communists. They didn’t know what the hell we were talking about.”

Now, HBO’s movies are dominating the Emmy Awards and reaping ratings rewards. Robert Cooper, senior VP of HBO Pictures, responsible for past successes such as “Stalin” and “Barbarians at the Gate,” and the upcoming AIDS drama, “And the Band Played On,” says that competition forces excellence.

Showtime, HBO’s rival, is also in the thick of the battle for audiences. “Everyone seems to be creating original programming,” observes Dennis Johnson, Showtime’s senior VP, movies and specials.

Certainly, big names are flocking to the cable networks, both in front of and behind the cameras. Hollywood powerhouse producer-director Sydney Pollack’s “Fallen Angels” series on Showtime boasts stars Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Isabella Rosselini, Diane Lane, Laura Dern and James Woods.

Future Showtime productions include “Love, Cheat, and Steal,” a crime thriller starring Eric Roberts and John Lithgow; “Love Matters,” a comedy/drama about marriage, starring Kate Burton and Griffin Dunne, and “Lush Life,” a New York jazz story, with Jeff Goldblum, Forest Whitaker and Kathy Baker.

The “Showtime 30-Minute Movie,” will feature the work of first-time directors Kathleen Turner, Meg Ryan, Sigourney Weaver and JoBeth Williams.

HBO’s much-talked-about “And the Band Played On,” adapted from the Randy Shilts book about the early years of the AIDS crises, debuts Sept. 11 with an all-star cast including Matthew Modine, Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

In October on HBO, Mickey Rourke stars in a post-Civil War western, “The Last Outlaw”; and December sees Daryl Hannah in the comedy “Attack of the 50-foot Woman.”

Besides more episodes of Garry Shandling’s successful talk-show satire, “The Larry Sanders Show,” HBO has two Tracey Ullman specials, in October and November; an untitled film about the Attica prison riot, with Kyle MacLachlan, Samuel L. Jackson and Harry Dean Stanton, set for January; “Slow Bleed,” a hospital drama, with Joe Mantegna and Lynn Whitfield, due in February; and a late-night comedy special, “Bill Hicks: Revelations,” scheduled to air Sept. 10.

A&E Entertainment’s fall lineup includes a new four-hour miniseries (co-produced with Britain’s Anglia), starring the current James Bond, Timothy Dalton. Titled “Framed,” and airing Sept. 19 and 20, the drama is about a mobster-turned-informer who manipulates the young cop on the case.

A&E also has new mystery episodes of “Poirot” (Sept. 5), “Lovejoy” (Sept. 6) and “Miss Marple” (Sept. 7); a profile of Elizabeth Taylor in its “Biography” series (Sept. 7); and a new documentary series, “Civil War Journal,” hosted by Danny Glover, starting Sept. 8.

The Disney Channel’s big names include Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in “The Best of the Blues Brothers” (Sept. 26), featuring perfs from “Saturday Night Live” and never-before-seen highlights from their 1979 U.S. tour.

Disney also taps into the hot country music field with “Trisha Yearwood” (Oct. 10) and appeals to parents and kids with “Raffi on Broadway” (Oct. 6).

On TBS, Jane Seymour will host the six-hour medical special, “The Heart of Healing: Remarkable Stories of How We Heal Ourselves,” on three consecutive nights, Oct. 26, 27 and 28. Beginning Dec. 13, “The Untold West,” is a three-part, three-hour documentary debunking myths of the Old West.

TNT helps celebrate its fifth anniversary with the four-hour epic, “The Road to Gettysburg” (Oct. 7), which re-creates the three-day Civil War battle and stars Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels and Sam Elliott.

TNT’s other original productions this fall include a boxing drama, “Percy and Thunder” (Sept. 7), with James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams; “Zelda” (Nov. 7), the story of Zelda Fitzgerald, with Natasha Richardson and Timothy Hutton; the children’s classic, “The Borrowers” (Sept. 27), starring Ian Holm and Sian Phillips; “The Cisco Kid” (Dec. 5), with Jimmy Smits as O’Henry’s wandering adventurer and Cheech Marin as his sidekick, Pancho; and “The Broken Chain” (Dec. 12), an Indian saga with Eric Schweig, Pierce Brosnan and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The USA Network’s film slate is heavy on murder mysteries: “Rubdown” (Sept. 15), with Jack Coleman, Michelle Phillips and William Devane; “The Substitute” (Sept. 22), with Amanda Donahoe and Marky Mark; “Linda” (Oct. 8), with Virginia Madsen and Richard Thomas; and ‘The Cover Girl Murders” (Oct. 28), with Jennifer O’Neill, Beverly Johnson and Lee Majors.

USA is also making its first foray into primetime animation with Klasky-Csupo’s “Duckman.” Slated to air early in 1994, project is co-production with Paramount TV.

The Nashville Network (TNN) is revamping its weeknight schedule this week following host Ralph Emery’s decision to bow out of his nightly “Nashville Now” interview show after 10 years. Replacing it on Oct. 18 will be “Music City News, ” hosted by Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase.

Other new TNN series are “Dance Line” (Sept. 27), a nightly dance-instruction show; “Country News” (Sept. 27), a nightly entertainment news report; and “Video Countdown” (Oct. 1), a weekly review of the country-music charts.

The Discovery Channel’s fall highlights include “Spirits of the Rainforest,” a two-hour examination of the last remaining unspoiled rainforest on earth, the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru; and its sister service, The Learning Channel, will explore “Frankenstein” in a “Great Books” presentation.

On Lifetime, Melanie Mayron stars as a pediatrician caring for a boy who has AIDS in “Other Women’s Children.”

Earl Hamner Jr. has a new series, “Snowy River: The McGregor Saga,” set in Australia, starting on The Family Channel.

American Movie Classics takes a nostalgic look at the film world with Richard Schickel’s series, “Hollywood on Hollywood,” and a Dec. 2 presentation, hosted by Eva Marie Saint, “All Aboard! Riding the Rails of American Film.”

With other services such as Bravo, BET, CNBC, the Sci-Fi Channel, Comedy Central, Court TV, the Cartoon Network and more, joining the fray, cable TV is busier and more competitive than ever.

MTV will present “Free Your Mind Forum” (October), following up on MTV News’ “Free Your Mind” campaign encouraging tolerance. Sister station VH-1 will show a series of six 23-minute innovative musicvideos produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

Says Chris Albrecht, HBO’s senior VP of original programming: “With movies getting more expensive and with the cost of television programming not exactly going down, the real question for 300 or 500 channels is — What are they going to air?”

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