Networks seek to broaden horizons with originals

There’s an old showbiz axiom that says stick to what you do best. But in 2007, cablers are adhering to another showbiz truism: Nobody ever succeeded by playing it safe.

In an ever-expanding universe, cablers are working on new shows that fulfill the triple goals of a network: a show that becomes must-see viewing, brands the network and spreads its success to the net’s companion shows.

And cablers in 2007 will offer skeins that are very different from their usual fare. This could prove a tough sell, though, if auds struggle to match interchangeable shows with their ill-defined networks.

The male-skewing Comedy Central is starting a rare female-anchored show — starring Sarah Silverman, no less.

Showtime is making a rare foray into historical drama. FX is working on its first family drama. And HBO is offering a show that’s … well, hard to describe.

While off-network series and theatrical movies are a cable staple, they’re not the only way to get huge numbers. Look at TNT behemoth “The Closer,” an original drama that grabs more viewers than almost everything on the CW.

The number of scripted one-hours has been growing in recent years, but things are about to get much more dramatic in 2007.

USA, Sci Fi Channel, FX, ABC Family and TNT have at least one hit drama apiece — and each will unveil at least one more next year. (As FX can attest, a second or third hit skein can help cement a brand.)

Meanwhile, AMC, A&E, Lifetime, Spike TV and even MTV will throw down new contenders.

Indeed, cable has grown a crop of its own must-see TV that will return in the following months: a new (final?) season of “The Sopranos” on HBO, hardy faves “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and no less than two “Flavor of Love” spinoffs (“I Love New York” and “Charm School”). And, of course, reality standbys such as cooking, home design and documentary programs will dominate the dial.

But cable excels when it shifts. A major change in 2007, in the wake of “The Closer’s” success, will be the rollout of more femme-centered dramas.

Lifetime will unspool the Mark Gordon-produced “Army Wives,” about spouses on a military base; Courteney Cox will play a she-devil editor on FX’s tabloid drama “Dirt”; FX alum Glenn Close will return to the net to star in a courtroom thriller; and Holly Hunter will join Kyra Sedgwick as one of TNT’s badge-wielding women in “Grace.”

A cable power list of seven for ’07 (in alphabetical order):

AMC’s “Mad Men”: What is an original weekly series doing on movie network AMC? Who knows? But chances are “Mad Men” will be worth sampling. It comes from Matthew Weiner, an exec producer on “The Sopranos,” who says that the 1960s Madison Avenue-set story will revolve around a creative director for a ad agency hawking everything from cigarettes to political candidates. “There’s certainly nothing like it on TV,” he says.

Net execs say the project falls into its goal of programming that will flow into and out of classic pics like “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “The Apartment.”

Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program”: Laff net is hoping Silverman will work some magic on female auds when her show premieres. Not since the ill-fated “Wanda Does It” has the channel — home to male-skewing “South Park” and “Drawn Together” — attempted a female-anchored series.

Silverman’s “Program” is the sort of sketch show that finds its star holding court with God, wreaking havoc in a wheelchair marathon and sending a homeless Vietnam vet into hysterics — all to the strum of song. That is to say, it’s the sort of sketch show only Silverman would attempt.

FX’s “The Riches”: Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver portray married con artists who take up the identity of well-to-do suburbanites, the Riches. In the cabler’s first “family show,” Izzard stars as Wayne Malloy, a father questioning the marginal life his family leads, while Driver will play his wife, Dahlia, newly sprung from prison and battling a drug habit.

FX excels at antihero tales. But unlike high-concept gambits “Over There” and “Dirt,” “The Riches” scales things down to family-size intimacy. It’s not unlike the familial angst that blew “Sopranos” into a king-sized hit.

HBO’s “John From Cincinnati”: Little is known about the tone of David Milch’s new surf drama about a dysfunctional family. HBO says it’s not a “surf noir,” the description of the Kem Nunn novels that inspired the series. And insiders say the show even sports elements of the supernatural.

Whatever the case, Milch’s script, co-written with Nunn, got HBO brass so hot and bothered that they quickly cut short Milch’s acclaimed Shakespearean oater “Deadwood” so he could get started on “John.” Show stars Bruce Greenwood as patriarch of the Yost clan and a former surfing star. Cast includes Rebecca De Mornay, Brian Van Holt, Greyson Fletcher, Austin Nichols and Matt Winston.

MTV’s “I’m From Rolling Stone”: It’s no “Almost Famous.” But for fans of MTV, this reality series, in which aspiring writers duke it out “Apprentice”-style for a paying gig at Rolling Stone magazine, features the best of the guilty-pleasure-inducing spats of “The Real World” and the fierce competition that’s made shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway” addictive viewing.

Skein will send six eager twentysomethings through a gantlet of reporting challenges and deadlines. Show even features music mag magnate Jann Wenner to do some “Trump”-esque ousting.

Showtime’s “The Tudors”: You might think Showtime was a little late to the game, with its historical period piece arriving a full year after HBO debuted its ancient-times sudser “Rome.” But whereas HBO’s Caesar series was a true soap opera with plenty of intrigue among countless characters, Showtime’s take on the early years of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is a focused endeavor mixing a high sex-and-betrayal quotient with performances from notable A-list thesps Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who shook his way to a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Elvis in the 2005 CBS mini), Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam.

Another reason to be hopeful: Showtime’s got plenty of street cred these days, having earned high marks among crix for series “Weeds,” “Brotherhood” and “Dexter.”

TNT’s “Grace”: Holly Hunter will step up to the plate playing a complex protagonist in the upcoming skein “Grace.” Thesp portrays an Oklahoma City cop turned cynical and jaded after her sister is killed in the 1995 bombing. She’s visited by a petulant angel who offers — or forces her into — a chance at redemption.

TNT is shaping up to be the FX for women. While FX has made its name on testosterone shows like “The Shield” and “Rescue Me,” Turner net has been beating the competition with “The Closer.”

And execs swear “Grace” will not be the second coming of “Touched By an Angel.”

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