TNT ready to blast back onto skein scene

NEW YORK — TNT is back in the series saddle again.

After declaring itself out of the recurring series biz, cabler has jumped back in, announcing partnerships with a bevy of top producers and major studios for a handful of weekly drama projects.

In addition, TNT has tapped original programming senior VP Michael Wright to oversee development for the shows. Promotion adds series development to Wright’s responsibilities, which had previously consisted of movies and minis duties.

Cabler has teamed with Warner Bros. Television, DreamWorks, Sony Pictures TV and Spelling TV for hourlongs in partnership with writer-producers including Mark Rosner (“The Rock”), John Ridley (“Third Watch”), Jorge Zamacona (“Homicide: Life on the Street”), Gary Randall (“Any Day Now”) and James Manos (“The Sopranos”).

TNT execs hope to bow at least one original weekly in summer 2005, when the channel is also slated to premiere the Steven Spielberg event series “Into the West.”

Newly rebranded sister net TBS is already actively pursuing several original reality shows — an unscripted version of “Gilligan’s Island” and the Bruce Nash reality relationship show “Outback Jack” among them — to complement the off-net premiere of “Sex and the City” and the rest of the cabler’s acquired comedies (Daily Variety, March 2).

Decision to return to recurring series at TNT comes as something of a surprise. Cabler has long been out of the traditional series game, having shuttered its last original dramas, “Witchblade” and “Bull,” a few years ago. And TBS/TNT exec veep Steve Koonin on several occasions declared cable execs would be better off planning limited skeins or series that arc over a finite number of episodes.

However, Turner Entertainment Group prexy Mark Lazarus alluded to TNT’s future return to recurring regulars after announcing TBS’ originals slate earlier this year.

Wright said the business model has become more accommodating for multiple-season cable shows coinciding with the recent onslaught of cable success in original programming.

” ‘The Shield,’ ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘The Dead Zone’ have opened people’s eyes at the studio level and in the creative community,” Wright said. “There are now more people who work in series television who are increasingly interested in doing projects for cable.”

TNT will commit part of the $350 million original programming budget — split between itself and TBS through 2006 — on developing projects including the following:

  • “The System,” from Mark Rosner and DreamWorks, revolves around ruthless criminal prosecutor Sean Foley, whose unscrupulous courtroom tactics reflect his own decadent lifestyle. Project was previously in development at NBC.

  • An untitled hour from director-producer Ridley centers on the operations of a fictitious, elite crime-fighting unit of the LAPD that specializes in stopping cons.

  • A “Law & Order”-style medical skein produced by Gary Randall will follow the emergency medical technicians that rush out to victims and accidents in the first half of each episode while the second half will focus on the trauma-care doctors who take over in the hospital.

  • A series from Spelling TV and Zamacona focuses on those fighting urban crime. Untitled drama eyes the creation of a new unit exceeding LAPD’s SWAT team.

  • Manos’ family drama “Hell’s Kitchen” tells the stories of cops and criminals — all of whom belong to the same Irish-American family. Story focuses on a retired cop whose children and grandchildren have split up along both sides of the law.

“We are in search of our signature dramatic series,” Wright said, noting the move into original series won’t translate into fewer hours of “Law & Order” on the network.

In fact, he continued, TNT is taking a page from the Dick Wolf playbook and investing primarily in procedural dramas on the “L&O”/”CSI” order. Exec, however, plans to develop a couple of projects that stray from the stand-alone episode format, pointing to “Hell’s Kitchen” as an example.

“The way we tell the story is what’s going to be distinctive. The execution of the shows is what will set them apart,” Wright said.

With more concepts cooking in development, TNT has pledged to produce three pilots by late this summer. Execs will then pluck the most promising and send it into production by February for a summer launch next year.

Already on the docket for this year are event series “The Grid” and Spielberg’s “Into the West,” in addition to the original movies “Salem’s Lot,” “Evel Knievel,” Johnson & Johnson Spotlight pic “The Wool Cap” and “The Librarian.”

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