CBS dangles shark bait

Eye pumps out disaster pix in bid for younger demo

Critics be damned: CBS, the home of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, is turning to killer sharks and man-eating locusts in a bid to woo younger auds to its Sunday movie franchise.

No, really.

In the wake of huge ratings for last fall’s B-movie masterpiece “Category Six: Day of Destruction,” Eye execs have decided a healthy dose of popcorn may be just the ticket to fight off those damn “Desperate Housewives.”

Weepers like Keri Russell starrer “Ordinary Days” remain a big part of the net’s longform future. Indeed, CBS recently renewed its association with Hallmark through 2008.

But the traditional tear-jerkers are now sharing a timeslot with high-concept fare.

This week brings the babes-in-bikinis bacchanal “Spring Break Shark Attack,” in which former “OC” hottie Shannon Lucio has to fend off bloodthirsty sea creatures while wearing next to nothing.

And next month brings the title-says-it-all pic “Locusts,” featuring Lucy Lawless as a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture scientist fighting a deadly breed of bioengineered critters swarming both coasts.

“We wanted to shake it up,” says Bela Bajaria, the Eye’s head of movies and minis. “We wanted to be more competitive on Sunday night and try something different.”

Eye’s popcorn pic strategy first started taking shape following the unexpected success of NBC’s 2004 earthquake mini “10.5.” That led to a greenlight for “Category 6,” and when that resonated with viewers, too, CBS execs figured they were on to something.

“There’s an audience for this kind of movie that’s perhaps not being served by features,” says CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler. Indeed, other than “Day After Tomorrow” and “The Core,” the film studios haven’t been churning out disaster pics like they used to.

Even cablers like TBS, TNT and USA — once known for populist fare like “Atomic Twister” — have moved away from popcorn pics in favor of more upscale fare.

“We sensed there was an opportunity there,” Tassler says.

Eye execs are understandably sensitive to suggestions they’re dumbing down one of the net’s longest-running franchises.

“You can still have a good script with a high concept,” Tassler argues. “It can still be well executed,” she says.

“There’s a mandate that these have to be fun, but they also have to be good movies,” Bajaria says. “The quality and the production values have to be there.”

Net has launched an unusually large promo campaign for a pic not even airing during a sweeps frame, even going so far as to arrange a deal with corporate cousin MTV under which the movie will serve as an official sponsor of the cabler’s annual spring break festivities.

Extensive on-air promotion during the net’s NCAA coverage was meant to woo young men, while street teams hit Times Square to hand out “Shark Attack” beer coolers and inflatable sharks.

CBS isn’t the only net that’s latched on to the B-movie trend.

NBC, which kicked off the latest round of disaster dramas with “10.5,” is working on several similar projects. It even snatched up a Robert Halmi-produced remake of “The Poseidon Affair” that had been headed for the Hallmark Channel.

Peacock cable entertainment and cross-platform strategy prexy Jeff Gaspin says popcorn pics offer auds “safe mayhem.”

“You get to experience these awful things, but you’re in your home and you know you’re going to be OK,” he says. “It’s like a roller-coaster.”

CBS is still planning just a few roller-coaster rides per season — though if “Shark Attack” and “Locusts” both do well with viewers, that could always change.

“The goal is always to get ratings, get good reviews and to win awards,” Bajaria says. “That’s the goal. But not every movie is going to be that. At some point, it’s about what the audience wants.”

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