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Cablers deal with higher expectations

More outfits are braving risky series waters to lure viewers

Producing an original weekly TV series is not cheap. Yet with the popularity of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” more cablers, both basic and pay, are developing and producing their own shows in the hopes of creating a similar breakout hit. The high production costs, they hope, will be worth it.

“As more and more of the established channels do more original productions, the audience expectation grows. Therefore, the advertiser expectation has grown,” says Margaret Loesch, president-CEO of the Odyssey network.

Odyssey, which operates as a partnership between Hallmark Entertainment and the Jim Henson Co., is trying to build an audience from its 29 million subscribers. Loesch explains that while advertisers are supportive of their extensive family-oriented library, including Hallmark’s minis and TV movies as well as Henson’s “The Muppet Show,” they still want more.

“Advertisers are saying, ‘What else have you got? What’s new? What’s exclusive to Odyssey?’ Our answer is we’re making them as fast as we can,” she says.

This fall Odyssey will premiere a weekly documentary series “America”; “Sunday Dinner,” a celebrity-oriented family show; and “The Extraordinary World of H.G. Wells,” an anthology series based on the sci-fi writer’s short stories.

Loesch concedes that such programming is expensive, but adds, “We can’t disappoint the audience. For instance, if we say ‘H.G. Wells,’ an audience is going to expect special effects and a period genre that looks rich.”

“Competition for original programming has become quite fierce, particularly in a crowded marketplace,” says Robert DeBitetto, president of original programming at TNT.

In August, TNT, building on its longform and miniseries success, premiered its first weekly series, “Bull,” and plans to unveil “Breaking News,” focused on the world of a cable news channel, in January.

New focus

“A lot of cable networks, both basic and premium, are offering up their own series, even the ones that weren’t doing anything a few years ago,” he says. “Because of all this, our focus is to bring shows to our network that are distinctive.”

In TNT’s case, “distinctive” means hitting its target audience, who DeBitetto describes as “baby boomers, 25- (to) 49-year-olds, both men and women, an educated audience. Both “Bull” and “Breaking News,” he says, “speak loudly” to this demographic.

“Both shows are ensemble dramas about relationships, but with an awareness of the world we’re living in. There’s a contemporary and topical relevance that both shows bring that make them really appealing to us,” he says.

DeBitetto explains that TNT is waiting to see how “Bull” and “Breaking News” perform before beginning production on additional series. Hopes are high, however, for both.

“A few well-executed working shows can do an awful lot to build an identity for your network and do a lot to hype a network’s public image on a consumer level,” he says.

For a premium cabler such as the Showtime network, the benefits of producing its own series have become more important each year.

“As the number of viewing options increase, the significance of having programming that’s unique and proprietary, that is, that no one else has it so you can’t find anything else like it, becomes more significant,” says Mark Zakarin, Showtime’s executive veep original programming.

And Showtime ought to know, its “Stargate: SG-1” is in its fourth year and still garners a loyal audience. Meanwhile, one of the cabler’s newest series, “Soul Food,” about an African-American family, debuted this summer and has averaged a 2.8 primetime rating in cable homes, driven by a high volume of female viewers.

For its fall slate, Showtime will continue to offer fare not found on network TV. In late 2000-early 2001, the cabler will debut “Queer as Folk,” a dramatic series based on the controversial British show about the gay cultural scene, and “The Chris Isaak Show,” a blend of fact and fiction focused on the photogenic rocker that will air in December.

“We began as a theatrical movie service and evolved to producing original movies,” Zakarin says. “But nothing allows you to retain viewership better than a series that is loved by people who want to come back week after week. In order to justify the tariff viewers pay for premium TV, we’re really in the favorite-show business.

“More people every year are making movies and series and there are more channels on your remote control,” he adds. “This world is forever changing and the options are forever increasing.”

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