Channel launching 10-hour reality show

The producers of “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” have begun pre-production on “America’s Next Producer,” a 10-hour reality-competition series for TV Guide Channel.

Production company Magical Elves will tape the series in Los Angeles for a weekly primetime slot on TV Guide Channel in the summer. It’s set up casting calls to come up with the 10 wannabe producers who’ll go head-to-head as contestants. (The auditions start in Chicago on Saturday, move to L.A. March 10 and end up in New York on March 16-18.)

“This is the most elaborate original production we’ve ever got involved in,” said TV Guide Channel prexy Ryan O’Hara.

O’Hara sees “America’s Next Top Producer” as a potential signature show for the network. It’s part of a strategy to ramp up original programming to convince cable operators and satellite distributors that they should pony up more money in license fees than the paltry 3¢ a month they pay now for each subscriber — one of the lowest in the industry, according to Kagan Research. (O’Hara declined to comment on the license fee.) The network reaches 80.3 million homes.

Earlier this month, the network gave a go to “Making News: Texas Style,” a 13-episode series providing “an inside look at the inner workings of a local news station in Midland-Odessa, Texas.” Net also renewed “Idol Tonight,” its live pre-show to Fox Network’s “American Idol.”

TV Guide Channel is beefing up its programming, at least in part following a ratings decline in 2006. Web dropped % in total primetime viewers vs. 2005 and fell off even more in the three key adult demos, slipping by 12% in adults 18-34, 9% in 18-49 and 7% in 25-54.

“America’s Next Top Producer” will “give viewers a window on the world of some of the things a producer does,” said Dan Cutforth, co-founder of Magical Elves and co-exec producer of the series with Jane Lipsitz and Richard Bye. Casey Kriley is supervising producer.

Cutforth said the challenges his staff cooks up for the contestants will parallel what’s become the norm in the business these days. “Almost every network tests new scripted ideas in low-budget ways,” he said. “Network executives will say to a writer, ‘We’ll give you $20,000 to spend on showing us your characters in a three-minute tape.’ “

Each rival for the crown of “America’s Next Top Producer” will be asked to put together a three-minute sales tape on the scope of the show that contestant has in mind, Cutforth said. All programming genres are fair game, from dramas and comedies to reality shows and gameshows. The judges will grade contestants on how compelling they can make these no-frills presentations.

O’Hara said the skein is negotiating with a morning TV show, which would serve as a proving ground for one or more of the aspirants to create a segment for the ayem program.

One of the judges will be a distribution executive, said Cutforth, another will be a creative entrepreneur, and the third may be a working TV critic. Those judges and a host have yet to be named.

The top prize consists of $100,000 in cash, a production office in Hollywood and a first-look deal with TV Guide Channel.

But the contestants will have to earn it the hard way: They’ll live together under one roof in the expectation that, as TV Guide puts it, “tempers will flare.”

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