Sci-Fi gets nice slice of USA's '97-98 pie

USA Networks Entertainment on Tuesday unveiled a 1997-98 programming slate for the USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel that carries an original budget comparable with last year’s $175 million, but with the expenditure tilted more toward the Sci-Fi side than it was for ’96-97.

That’s the result of an ambitious step-up in the Sci-Fi Channel’s longform production next season that will include the channel’s first homegrown miniseries — a six-hour co-production with the BBC titled “Invasion Earth” — as well as a second six-hour mini, a remake of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic “Dune.”

“Invasion Earth” is slated to begin production in Scotland in August from a script by Jed Mercurio. “Dune” is being produced by New Amsterdam Entertainment Inc. (Stephen King’s “The Stand” and “The Langoliers”) in association with ABC Pictures.

Sci-Fi Channel also is developing an original film based on Rod Serling’s “Playhouse 90” story titled “A Town Has Turned to Dust.” Independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson has been signed to direct and adapt the script.

All of this is in addition to a planned four-hour miniseries adaptation of the Jules Verne classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth” from executive producer Robert Halmi for a 1999 premiere.

USA Networks Entertainment prexy Rod Perth said Wednesday that while the longform programming strategy for Sci-Fi “carries risk,” the risk is justified, given the channel’s 42% subscriber growth over the past year. (Sci-Fi Channel now is seen in 42 million homes nationally.)

“We’re doing a lot more of everything for Sci-Fi because we think the channel, and the audience, are ready for it,” Perth said.

Meanwhile, on the USA Network side, the net gave a 22-episode full-season renewal to its solidly rated cheesecake/action hour “La Femme Nikita.” It will headline a four-drama Sunday-night original block that includes new seasons of “Pacific Blue” at 8 p.m., “Silk Stalkings” at 9 p.m., “Nikita” at 10 p.m. and “The Big Easy” at 11 p.m.

USA also is launching the off-net premiere of “Walker, Texas Ranger” on Aug. 4, the same date it rolls out its weekday afternoon (5-6 p.m.) teen block of “Saved By the Bell: The New Class” and the comedy “USA High.” The network has ordered 91 episodes of “Class,” 75 of “High.” “Walker” will run weeknights at 8 p.m.

Perth would not rule out USA making a bid for the off-net rights to “Touched By an Angel,” but believes it will sell for “significantly less” than the $750,000 per hour the net paid for “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

Original series now in development for USA, and unveiled on Wednesday, include:

“Bruce Lee’s Netherworld,” a fantasy/action series written by John Shirley and incorporating footage of the late Bruce Lee through the use of computers and special effects.

“Cinderella Man,” about a New York undercover cop who plays the role of a jet-setting aristocrat.

“Firestorm,” an action series about an elite special operations unit.

“Genuine Heroes,” about a female bounty hunter paired with a former grifter.

“Melanie Darrow,” based on the USA film starring Delta Burke as a criminal defense attorney.

“On Sunset,” a sexy action/drama from “Red Shoe Diaries” producer Zalman King.

“Sins of the City,” a sexy Miami-based detective series written by Steve Feke.

“Spellbound,” light drama about a witch who teams with a detective.

“Tuff Guys,” about a mobster who goes straight as a restaurateur in South Beach, Fla.

“Vegas Metro,” a Las Vegas-based action drama from producers Warren Lewis and Richard DiLello.

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