With longform biz shifted beyond HBO and Showtime, other channels seek nods

Last year, TNT’s “Door to Door,” a made-for-TV movie about a mild-mannered salesman who overcomes his disability, triumphed over broadcast and pay cable competition, winning six trophies at the Emmys.

The telepic’s dominance was yet another sign to the basic cable world that its increasing investment in longform programming is paying off.

As broadcast nets continue to back off the telefilm business, the basic cablers are realizing that event movies and miniseries are opportunities to bolster their brands and, for some, win Emmys.

“We look to our original movies to expand our reach, to make people aware of us who might otherwise not have tuned in,” says Michael Wright, TNT’s senior VP of original programming. “An original movie shines a light on our brand and says, ‘This is what TNT is about.’ “

Original movies also make more business sense for cable than for broadcasters. They are a significant financial investment, and broadcast nets have only one opportunity to air them.

On cable, a movie can be shown several times in various timeslots. By replaying its remake of Neil Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl,” for instance, TNT was able to attract 23 million viewers overall over its premiere weekend.

Not surprisingly, longform has become an increasingly key component of basic cable networks’ ad sales strategy.

“They’re not cheap, so in and of themselves, original movies and miniseries aren’t profit centers in their own right, but they create buzz,” says A&E senior VP of programming Bob DiBitetto, formerly prexy of original programming at TNT.

“They get an unfair share of public relations notice and a lot of marketing. As we make upfront deals with our key clients, they can drive ad sales packages.”

Lifetime is so dedicated to the longform business that it recently committed to increase its production of originals from 12 to 19, the most ever in a single year for the femme cable net.

Lifetime also is developing its first original miniseries, scheduled for 2005.

“We’re making more now because the broadcast networks have decreased their output, and there are so few movies we can buy from them,” says Trevor Walton, Lifetime’s senior VP of original movies. “As it comes of age, basic cable is looking to find its niche with original movies, while the broadcast networks have largely abdicated that area because they’re busy with their reality and scripted series.”

Despite basic cable’s dedication to longform programming, Matt Roush, senior critic at TV Guide, thinks last season’s original movies and miniseries offerings on basic cable have been generally weak overall.

“Come Emmy time, HBO’s ‘Angels in America’ will likely overshadow the basic cable competition. Honestly, the pickings are slim.”

That said, Roush highlighted several projects that have a shot at Emmy stardom. Diane Keaton could get notice for executive producing and starring in Lifetime’s “On Thin Ice,” the true story of a widowed mother who peddles drugs to support her family.

“I consider this to be Emmy bait. It’s just a question of whether Emmy voters bite,” Roush says.

Lifetime is backing other contenders, including Anne Heche in “Gracie’s Choice” and Marcia Gay Harden in “She’s Too Young.”

Sci Fi has a chance at earning kudos for “Battlestar Galactica,” a four-hour mini that premiered in December and was the most-viewed miniseries on cable last year. “Sci Fi broke through with nominations for ‘Taken,’ so they could hit again with ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ ” Roush says.

Although it’s not cable, PBS will likely be represented in the category at the Emmys with “Prime Suspect 6,” starring Helen Mirren, who has been nominated four times for her role in the previous “Prime Suspect” movies, winning once.

“She should be a slam-dunk,” Roush says. “She got nominated last year for ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’ and is always formidable competition.”

A&E is hoping to be represented with the recent installment of its miniseries “Horatio Hornblower.” The 1999 mini on the character won, while 2001’s garnered a nom. It also is giving a major push to original movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day,” starring Tom Selleck, the cabler’s highest-rated original ever.

Some long shots that can’t be discounted, according to Roush, include USA’s “Traffic” and Jamie Foxx’s performance in FX’s “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.”

“I would be lying if I said we made movies to win Emmys, but we won’t complain if we’re nominated,” says TNT’s Wright, who is hoping “The Goodbye Girl” could earn another Emmy nomination or win for TNT.

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