Ratings-challenged laffer's third-season order recently cut

Fox still hasn’t officially canceled “Arrested Development,” but if it does, other networks are interested in the show.

Both ABC and Showtime have had conversations with 20th Century Fox TV and indicated they’re open to making a deal for new episodes of the critically beloved, Emmy-winning comedy from creator Mitch Hurwitz. No formal negotiations have taken place, and there are still numerous hurdles that might prevent such a move — including the show’s hefty pricetag.

That said, those familiar with the talks described them as serious, with Showtime said to be in particularly hot pursuit of the ratings-challenged laffer, now on life support at Fox. Skein’s third-season order was recently cut to 13 episodes.

Showtime could be a good place for “Arrested.” Skein’s subversive humor and heavily serialized storylines always made it a tough sell as a mass-appeal broadcast series. What’s more, Showtime already has a potential companion for “Arrested” in “Weeds,” which just received a second-season pickup. That show is a suburban satire centered on a drug-dealing soccer mom played by Mary-Louise Parker.

Network entertainment topper Robert Greenblatt has made an aggressive push to make Showtime a player in the comedy biz. He’s greenlit several since his arrival — including “Fat Actress” and “Barbershop” — and “Arrested” could be the piece de resistance. If even half of the skein’s Fox viewers — last averaging around 4 million per episode — watched on Showtime, “Arrested” would be an instant cable hit.

ABC, meanwhile, is also looking to make its mark in comedy, having already established itself as the home of TV’s most buzzworthy dramas (“Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy”). Net has high hopes for upcoming laffers, such as “Emily’s Reason’s Why Not,” “Crumbs” and “Sons and Daughters,” as well as a sophomore contender, “Jake in Progress.”

Since Fox has yet to officially cop to canceling “Arrested,” 20th can’t formally make any deals with another net. There are other barriers to setting the show up elsewhere, however.

Studio has already deficited millions in order to produce the show, which costs about $1. 6 million per half-hour to produce. It’s believed 20th deficits about $400,000 per episode.

Even if ABC or Showtime stepped up with the same license fee Fox now forks over for the show, 20th execs will have to decide whether it’s worth it to sink more money into a show that isn’t a proven ratings winner. That’s one reason the studio might push for at least a 22-episode (or greater) commitment from a net.

Studio needs 36 episodes to get “Arrested” to the magic number of 88 episodes required for syndication. But even if it gets to syndication, there’s no guarantee of a rich payday in the off-net market.

On the other hand, “Arrested” is a winner in the DVD market, and more episodes mean more DVD sales. Skein could also take off if given mass exposure on a cabler such as Showtime — particularly now that the feevee cabler is part of Leslie Moonves’ CBS Corp. family.

Moonves certainly knows something about making lemons out of lemonade. One of his first acts upon taking over CBS was picking up a show from NBC called “JAG.” Skein ran for nearly a decade on the Eye and spawned the successful spinoff “NCIS.”

Studio, Showtime and ABC declined comment.

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