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Strike a boon for cable networks

Cablers have high-profile shows in the can

The writers strike has created all kinds of havoc for broadcast and cable nets during the past five weeks. HBO and Showtime have been no exception — but in the long run, there may be some kind of immunity for the feevee channels concerning all the gloomy strike predictions.

Both channels have high-profile series in the can and set to roll in the first quarter of next year, including HBO’s gamble on a new five-night-a-week drama series, “In Treatment.” If the strike persists into January, HBO and Showtime will be able to unveil their shows in an atmosphere with far less competition from broadcast webs in the areas that matter most to pay-TV outlets, namely media attention and water-cooler chatter.

On Jan. 6, HBO will launch the fifth and final season of “The Wire.” The Baltimore-based series that defines the term “gritty urban drama” has never been a big crowdpleaser even by HBO standards, but it has a deeply faithful following among critics. Those crix may well be motivated to gush about “the best show that you’re not watching” even more than usual if there are fewer midseason shows on other nets to require their share of column inches.

Moreover, “Wire’s” 10-episode swan-song season features a prominent storyline involving the Baltimore Sun newspaper and its struggles with budget cutbacks — themes that are sure to strike a chord with journos.

Showtime bows season five of “The L Word” on Jan. 7. The lesbian-themed drama series hasn’t been the critical darling that “Wire” is, but it could also garner more attention than it would under normal circumstances, especially if other webs are serving up repeats and the kind of reality/alternative skeins that many crix love to hate.

Showtime also has a fresh round of lusty costume-drama hijinks from “The Tudors” debuting March 30, and a semi-scripted comedy starring Tracey Ullman, “State of the Union,” in the wings.

But for Showtime, the silver lining of the strike interregnum may come in the form of broader exposure for its signature drama “Dexter” on its sibling CBS broadcast web. CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves hinted last week that the Eye might turn to edited versions of Showtime series for fresh programming if a prolonged strike leaves the CBS sked barren in the second half of the season. (And it’s no secret that a number of key CBS programming execs are fans of the Showtime serial-killer detective skein.) “Tudors” could also be a contender for CBS replays.

“Airing some of our shows on CBS could be a great shot in the arm for us,” says Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt.

Like most other webs, HBO has been handicapped by the sudden shutdown of its most established ongoing series, polygamy drama “Big Love” and the inside-showbiz laffer “Entourage,” both of which had been penciled in to return in March or June. Production on the initial segs of high-profile newcomers that HBO hoped to unveil by the second half of 2008, Alan Ball’s vampire dramedy “True Blood,” and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s family ensembler “12 Miles of Bad Road,” also skidded to a halt Nov. 5 when the WGA’s work stoppage began.

The disruptions come at a time when HBO could least afford to field another curveball of bad news. The channel is coming off some programming disappointments this year, including generally unfriendly critical reactions to new (and since canceled) series “John From Cincinnati” and “Tell Me You Love Me,” and the behind-the-scenes turmoil wrought by the hasty exit in May of longtime leader Chris Albrecht.

But in the near term, the industry circumstances caused by the strike could give a leg up to “In Treatment.” Based on an Israeli TV series, the HBO rendition is set to begin its nine-week, 43-seg run Jan. 28. Viewers deprived of their favorite high-end scripted skeins may be more inclined to make the time investment the HBO show seems to need.

From the start, the series breaks a number of cardinal U.S. smallscreen conventions.

For one, it’s a half-hour drama — something not seen on U.S. airwaves since the days of “Adam 12” and “The Twilight Zone.” For another, it will air Monday-Friday at 9:30 p.m., a skedding pattern not seen since the days of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

And on top of that, the vast majority of “Treatment” scenes feature little more than two characters talking in a doctor’s office. Gabriel Byrne stars as a psychotherapist who isn’t quite the sage he appears to his patients.

Each “Treatment” seg will center on a single therapy session with a cast of recurring characters, whose appointments will adhere to a strict weekly sked, including Byrne’s character’s own sessions with his shrink, played by Dianne Wiest. HBO adaptation of the show is being spearheaded by scribe-director Rodrigo Garcia, an alumnus of “Six Feet Under,” “Big Love” and the short-lived “Carnivale.”

“One of the advantages we had in deciding to do ‘In Treatment’ was that we saw the Israeli version, and we could see that it was just immediately compelling drama,” says HBO Entertainment prexy Carolyn Strauss. “Beyond the sheer dramatic merits of the piece, the chance to do something different to shake up our schedule a little bit is exciting. We’ve been wanting to try something for a while that would really bring viewers to us on weeknights.”

At the same time, “Treatment” aims to capitalize on the DVR- and DVD-driven phenomenon of viewers programming their own mini-marathons of their favorite shows, watching episodes in batches on their own time instead of according to a network’s sked. HBO will make encores of each week’s “Treatment” segs widely available on its many offshoot channels and its on-demand platform.

(On the HBO Signature channel, “Treatment” segs will even mimic the show’s storyline by airing at the time when the patient’s appointment is supposed to be taking place, e.g. segs featuring the patient played by Melissa George will repeat at 9 a.m. Mondays, segs featuring the couples-therapy patients played by Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz will repeat at 6 p.m. Thursdays, etc.)

“What I’ve found as I watch (‘Treatment’ episodes) is that I gorge on them. I want to watch a whole bunch at a time,” Strauss says.

“This is not the kind of show where you need a break to digest the story and what you’ve just seen. It’s surprising how magnetic it can be to watch two people in a room just talking. … It’s a new type of storytelling that provides us with a lot of opportunities.”

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