Cablers stick to the script

Basic nets line up original series to combat reality onslaught

“Assblaster” is the name of the monster that kick up a fuss in the Sci Fi Channel’s tongue-in-cheek original “Tremors: The Series,” which premiered late last month.

Sci Fi and other cable networks like USA, Lifetime, ESPN, A&E and FX are hoping that “Tremors” and a batch of other scripted firstrun series coming up this spring and summer do some big-time ass-blasting of their own as they take on the vast array of new reality shows on the broadcast networks.

“Original, high-profile scripted series are a legitimate alternative to the huge wave of reality shows heading for the broadcast networks in the next few months,” says Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime.

Brooks says many of the cable networks are poised to help speed the demise of what he calls the glut of reality shows that will clog the schedules of the broadcasters, particularly during the summer, when these programs will fill time periods normally given over to reruns.

In addition to the Sci Fi Channel’s “Tremors,” which is a TV-series spinoff of the successful 1990 theatrical movie from Universal, the following scripted series will make their debuts on cable between now and late summer:

  • “Lucky” is FX’s half-hour comedy-drama set in Las Vegas starring John Corbett as a professional gambler who interacts with a gallery of colorful characters ranging from con artists to loan sharks. From Castle Rock Entertainment, “Lucky” kicks off April 8. The brothers Mark and Robb Cullen are executive producers.

  • “MI5,” a coproduction of A&E and the BBC filmed in London, deals with “the undercover world of the 21st-century British secret service.” A&E promises a fair degree of sex and violence for the espionage drama, starring Matthew Macfadyen. Exec producers Stephen Garrett and Jane Featherstone will film 16 episodes.

  • “The Peacemakers,” an offbeat Western for USA Network, features a mismatched pair of federal marshals who fight bad guys circa 1882. Tom Berenger plays a crusty traditionalist who believes in guns and fists and Peter O’Meara is a young Yale-educated lawman who puts his faith in the newfangled discipline of forensic science. Co-executive producers are Rick Ramage and Larry Carroll.

  • An untitled series from ESPN will go behind the scenes of a fictional football team the way Oliver Stone did with “Any Given Sunday.” Produced by ESPN’s sister company Touchstone TV, it’s the network’s first scripted series. Even though the cast and other details are still TBA, ESPN has already locked in the start date: Tuesday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m.

  • “Nip/Tuck” is a drama from FX focusing on two plastic surgeons in Miami’s South Beach. FX uses the adjective “sexy” to describe South Beach, so it’s fair to say the show will push the boundaries of content as vigorously as FX’s hit second-year program “The Shield.” The stars are Julian McMahon, Dylan Walsh and Joely Richardson. Ryan Murphy is the writer-director, and co-exec producer with Greer Shephard and Mike Robin.

  • Not to be outdone, Lifetime has four completed pilots at its disposal, two of which will go to series for the summer.

Based on last season’s scripted-series premieres on basic cable –USA’s “The Dead Zone” and “Monk” and FX’s “The Shield” — the Nielsen track record is mixed.

“The Shield” has held up quite well in its second go-round of 13 episodes (Jan. 7 to April 1), showing a gain of 3% in total viewers and 5% in adults 18 to 49 compared to its first season.

By contrast, “Dead Zone” fell off by double digits in total viewers, adults 18 to 49 and adults 25 to 54. Jeff Wachtel, executive VP of series and longform programming for USA, chalks up the decline to the fact that the show ran in June-Aug. 2002 (against broadcast reruns) but in Jan.-March 2003 (against, mostly, broadcast originals). The second-season of “Monk” won’t take place until June.

Wachtel acknowledges that in 2003 the broadcast networks will shatter their usual pattern of wall-to-wall summer reruns. “Even though we’d rather go up against reruns,” he says, “the reality glut has reinforced our commitment to scripted series.”

Similarly, Bob DeBitetto, senior VP of programming for A&E, says he’s targeting “MI5” at “upscale, educated fortysomethings” who are seeking out alternatives to what he calls “the lowbrow reality shows on broadcast TV.”

FX prexy and CEO Peter Liguori draws on a famous baseball proverb to summarize his programming strategy: “FX tries to hit ’em where they ain’t.”

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