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Cablers hook original series to rerun engine

If they have juice, they'll get the attention of viewers, Rosenberg sez

NEW YORK — Original dramas are popping up all over the place on basic-cable networks — from Lifetime’s “Strong Medicine” to A&E’s “100 Centre Street” to USA’s “The Huntress.”

Dozens more firstrun series are in the works, but they’re not yet crowding out the rerun dramas that cable networks are still buying in bulk.

It’s not exactly wise for a cable network to rely on original dramatic programming because none of the new series has yet broken through to don the mantle of mega-hit: There’s still no cable equivalent yet to “ER,” “Law & Order” or “The Practice.”

Another reason why cable networks still lust after successful rerun shows is that an original series is an unknown commodity, which needs to get tidal waves of marketing and promotion or face anonymity in a 100-plus channel universe, and eventual failure.

“One of the reasons I bought all three of the ‘Star Trek’ series is that it will help the network get people to watch our original series,” says Diane Robina, general manager of TNN, the Viacom-owned network that is in the midst of engineering a brand makeover from a rural-oriented service to a general-entertainment channel.

When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” kicks off on TNN this fall with multiple runs throughout the week, the network will have a popular noise machine to stuff with promotional spots for the new shows TNN is planning to commission as a way to distinguish itself from its competitors.

TNN particularly needs high-gloss reruns like “Star Trek” because the network’s primetime ratings average only about 50% to 60% of such entrenched general-entertainment networks as USA, TBS, Lifetime and TNT.

Without such engines as “Star Trek” and the forthcoming “VIP,” with Pamela Anderson, Robina says, an original series on TNN “could end up like a tree falling in the forest, which would make no sound if nobody was around to hear it.”

Robina’s analysis echoes the gut reaction of her counterparts at the other cable networks, pushing distributors of drama reruns to use the rerun-as-promotional-engine argument to try to drive up license fees.

Five of these reruns are angling toward a target air date of fall 2003: Warner Bros. Domestic Cable is pitching “The West Wing” and “Third Watch” to cable networks, and Studios USA is preparing to negotiate about “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” In the wings are Twentieth TV’s “Judging Amy” and Columbia TriStar TV Distribution’s “Family Law.”

Steve Rosenberg, president of domestic TV for Studios USA, acknowledges that cable networks “shouldn’t hang their hat” on off-network series as ends in themselves.

But reruns “are important to the programming mix,” Rosenberg says, “because if they have juice, they’ll get the attention of viewers.”

An attentive audience might be enticed to sample a new series whose promo spots keep jumping up at every commercial break within the familiar rerun.

Promotional tools are one thing, but cable networks have a harder time using episodes of high-rated drama reruns as direct lead-ins to new series struggling to find an audience.

One reason is simple logistics: Reruns play across the network’s schedule in the same timeslot from Monday through Friday, whereas original dramas show up once a week (with maybe one or two reruns of the episode scattered later in the week in different time periods).

USA and Lifetime, for example, consistently finish among the top five networks in primetime by adhering to a predictable schedule that makes it easy for subscribers to navigate.

USA strips “Nash Bridges” every weeknight at 8 followed by a movie. Similarly, Lifetime strips “Unsolved Mysteries” every weeknight at 8 followed by a pic.

Interrupting one of the USA and Lifetime movies on a given night for an original drama is a possibility, but at 9 the new series would be going up against the heart of the broadcast networks’ primetime strength, from NBC’s “West Wing” to CBS’ “CSI” to Fox’s “Ally McBeal” to ABC’s ubiquitous “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

TBS and TNT run a lot of movies in primetime, but the two networks together schedule at least three NBA games a week in primetime during the basketball season, and TBS plays dozens of Atlanta Braves games in primetime during the baseball season.

But Steve Koonin, exec VP and GM of TNT, says the fact that TNT’s primetime schedule is not rigid opens the network to the possibility of primetime experimentation.

With “Law & Order” reruns becoming available to TNT later this year, Koonin says he has one of the best springboards in television for the introduction of a new drama.

But Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime, says that many of the highest-rated original series on basic cable have operated within a block of original programming on a given night, feeding off each other rather than depending on a powerful off-network lead-in.

Lifetime, for example, is scoring the best Nielsens in its 17-year history with three back-to-back original hourlong dramas every Sunday at 8: “Strong Medicine,” “The Division” and “Any Day Now.”

And three years ago, USA established a solidly rated group of original series on Sunday, which included “Pacific Blue,” “Silk Stalkings” and “La Femme Nikita.”

Subsequent replacement series on USA such as “The Huntress” and “Cover Me” have not matched the ratings of their predecessors.

One network that has practically cornered the market for off-network hours, starting this fall, is FX, which could start stripping three of them in September: “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

At least one thing is certain on FX during the 2001-02 season: A new series on the network will get a tremendous boost because cable subscribers are sure going to know about it. When FX’s new-series tree crashes in the woods, it’ll blow out a lot of eardrums.

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