Cablers plan for repeat business

Press tour paticipants eyeing shows that will lead to long-term rev

HOLLYWOOD — Execs attending the cable portion of the Television Critics Assn.’s winter press tour last week were optimistic that their upcoming offerings are the makings for another stellar year.

“The final frontier we have to crack,” says USA Network topper Doug Herzog, “is creating a hit show on cable that has a backend.”

Generating backend revenue from a series requires sustained success over several seasons. Episodes to feed a syndication run must be accumulated, along with enough loyalty and interest from viewers to go back to a show in repeats.

Traditionally, original series on cable have been repeated heavily and then canceled before reaching enough episodes to syndicate.

But there are signs that the tide is beginning to change. Last year, cable beat broadcast in share for the first time.

Lifetime Television’s exec VP of entertainment Barbara Fisher, whose network was tops overall in primetime during 2002 in households, says cable is on the brink of greatness — if not already there.

“It’s energizing to have to do as well as or better,” she told Variety following Lifetime’s TCA session at the tour, held at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood. “We’re being propelled that way because everyone is doing so well in cable.”

The press tour’s participants revealed a number of originals that could strike a chord with viewers:

  • Part of Lifetime’s strategy going forward is to pursue top talent for their movies.

    They have the chops to do it, says multihyphenate Diane Keaton, who appeared at the confab to promote Lifetime telepic “Breaking Through,” in which she stars and exec produces.

    “I love television, and I think television has changed,” Keaton told the crix. “Back in the ’70s when I did ‘Annie Hall,’ it was like, ‘Don’t do TV.’ ”

    Keaton said the roles available in cable — like hers as a mom who turns to drug-dealing to support her family — are unlike what’s out there among theatricals.

    “I always hoped to get cast in a Sally Field-type role (like this),” she said.

  • HBO revealed new programming that it hopes will help it cope with the looming finales of “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos.”

    It has greenlit a Western drama series called “Deadwood” from David Milch, as well as a U.S. version of Britain’s “Ali G.”

    Like Lifetime’s Fisher, HBO exec VP of original programming Carolyn Strauss was upbeat about her net’s future.

    When asked whether HBO’s series heyday is coming to a close, she said, “This was the same question everybody asked after ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ — and before ‘Sopranos’ and ‘Sex and the City.'”

  • TLC previewed “What Not to Wear,” which the net hopes will reap the kind of success chalked up by another adaptation of a British show on the net, “Trading Spaces.”

    Even with the optimism, the pressure will be on these newcomers, as well as the second seasons of such hits of 2002 as FX’s “The Shield” and USA’s “Monk” and “Dead Zone,” to take cable beyond the turning point experienced with its originals last year.

    Sci Fi topper Bonnie Hammer admitted she’s looking hard for her next “Taken.”

    “We’re trying to figure out what we can do at that level,” she told Variety at the confab. “We’ve raised that bar now.”

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