USA, Sci Fi to follow up 2002 successes

Universal Television Group execs, led by chairman Michael Jackson, emerged from their presentations at the TV Critics press tour chanting the mantra, “If you build it they will come.”

UTG divisions USA Network and Sci Fi Channel both unveiled or alluded to follow-ups to their 2002 successes, as part of their strategy to keep their pipelines filled with brand solidifying originals. USA hit it big last year with the series “Monk” and “The Dead Zone,” while Sci Fi was propelled to the top of the ratings charts with epic miniseries “Steven Spielberg’s Taken.”

Jackson told Daily Variety after the sesh that cable overcame broadcast in share last year because cable is “investing in original programming with a distinctive point of view.”

His Vivendi Universal division, in fact, just received a nearly $400 million infusion to be spent over three years mainly on original USA Network and Sci Fi Channel programs. He clarified that the figure is in addition to the net’s existing programming budgets. That had not been clear when the investment was announced last month.

USA’s programming expenses — original and acquired — for 2003 are projected by Kagan World Media to be $334.4 million. Sci Fi is projected to spend $143 million.

USA presented a panel featuring James Woods on behalf of its upcoming Rudy Giuliani biopic “Rudy!,” which preems March 30.

USA Network topper Doug Herzog told Daily Variety he thinks the project has the potential to be the “biggest movie USA has ever had.”

Herzog was generally optimistic about his and other cable networks’ chances of following up the banner year that was 2002 with just as successful a 2003.

“Why not?” Herzog said. ” ‘Monk,’ ‘The Shield,’ ‘Dead Zone’ are all coming back, and we’ve got ‘Rudy,’ then ‘Traffic’ this summer,” he said. Herzog also said an announcement is imminent regarding the Brett Butler project that’s in development.

Cable will continue to attract big names, big projects and big auds with its originals, he said. “James Woods and Susan Sarandon were here this morning.”

Sarandon is one of the stars of Sci Fi’s upcoming “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune,” the follow-up to the Emmy-winning “Dune.”

Sci Fi Channel prexy Bonnie Hammer said her programming goal is to find the next “Taken.”

“We’re trying to figure out what we can do at that level,” she said after the sesh. “Taken” will be released on DVD this year and also receive an encore run on Sci Fi. It will not be sequeled.

One thing Sci Fi did confirm it’s developing is a second series project with Marvel and UTG sibling Reveille. In addition to the previously reported “1000 Days,” Sci Fi and Reveille also are collaborating with Marvel on a small-screen adaptation of “Brother Voodoo.”

“Brother Voodoo” will be based on the Marvel Comics series of the same name, which centers on the adventures of psychologist and voodoo priest Jericho Drumm.

Both Marvel projects will be shot as backdoor pilots.

Hans Rodionoff (“Clive Barker’s Saint Sinner”) is attached to write “Brother Voodoo.”

UTG’s fledgling popular arts network, Trio, also made some program announcements:

  • Month of March will be focused around filmmaking in the 1970s. Original documentary “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” will be sked’s centerpiece, airing March 9 at 9 p.m. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Shampoo” will be among the pics rounding out March slate.

  • Net, which just wrapped up a month of television-themed programming, will stay the course with original series “TV Out of the Box,” debuting Wednesday, Jan 22. Skein goes behind the scenes of a different TV show each week, from script to small screen.

  • “9 Sharp” block of documentary programming, airing each night at 9 p.m. Block will preem with Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard” (1996) on Monday, Jan. 27.

(John Dempsey and Lily Oei in New York contributed to this report.)

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