Network gets in game with first scripted series

Talk about great timing.

Starz, the pay TV network, has begun the marketing blitz for “Crash,” its first original scripted TV series, just a week after cable administered a sound thrashing to the broadcast biz during the Primetime Emmy Awards.

Scripted cable offerings including AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” FX’s “Damages” and HBO’s “John Adams” walked away with most of the major awards on Emmy night. These victories highlighted the trend of recent years in which, first HBO and now Showtime and a batch of cable networks have pushed the boundaries of content far beyond where the broadcasters are willing to venture.

Stephan Shelanski, executive VP of programming for Starz, acknowledges that his network has looked on with some envy as HBO and Showtime, its pay TV competitors, have parlayed some of their scripted originals into the perfect storm of viewer buzz, praise from critics, and, in many cases, solid Nielsen ratings.

Cable operators and satellite distributors that buy the pay networks are also cheerleading for them to beef up their movie lineup with fresh originals. Jerry McKenna, head of programming and marketing for Cable One, a top 10 cable operator, says by the time a theatrical gets to pay TV, millions of people have already seen it on DVD, Netflix, pay per view, Internet downloads, iTunes and other new-media applications.

Despite this erosion in the value of movies, Starz’s program lineup, with only a few exceptions, consists of all movies all the time. “But we have no ownership of the Hollywood movies we schedule” from Walt Disney and Columbia Pictures, the two main suppliers of pictures to Starz, says Shelanski.

By contrast, he continues, “Crash,” a co-production with Lionsgate (which released the 2005 best picture Academy Award winner that the series is based on), “will differentiate the network by providing unique content that people can’t find anywhere else.” The network is also working on the scripts of a batch of other potential series, many of them in-house.

Late last year, Starz, which is commercial free, got the word out that it was ready to offer more creative freedom than any broadcast network, or any ad-supported cable channel. The result, says Bill Hamm, the L.A.-based executive VP of creative development for Starz Media, is he’s being pitched lots of ideas not only from the usual TV players but also from movie talent.

“Crash” is a case in point. The exec producers of the movie, including the director/co-writer Paul Haggis, co-writer Bobby Moresco and Don Cheadle, who played a key onscreen role in the film, are all on board as co-exec producers of the series. Moresco, who shared the Oscar screenplay with Haggis, is the most hands-on of the group, having directed two episodes of the series.

Glen Mazzara (FX’s “The Shield”) came aboard as showrunner and hired a staff of writers who, he says, are used to coming up with edgier material. Two of his co-exec producer/writers crafted scripts for “The Sopranos” (Frank Renzulli) and “Deadwood” (Ted Mann). The two executive story editors cut their writing teeth on “The Wire” (Chris Collins) and “The Shield” (Randy Huggins).

Despite creating scripts that would get an R rating if submitted to the MPAA, Mazzara says, “I’m not getting any notes from Lionsgate or Starz asking us to pull back” on some of the raw language, raunchy sex and gut-wrenching violence that punch up each episode.

The downside is that Mazzara and his co-exec producers are not likely to make a killing on “Crash” in ancillary markets such as rerun sales to basic cable and TV syndication because the show is serialized, says Bill Myers, president and chief operating officer of Starz Entertainment/Media. “There’s no firm conclusion at the end of each hour,” unlike such lucrative franchises as “Law & Order” and “CSI.”

Serialized drama has a track record of flaming out in reruns, but Myers says if “Crash” finds an audience on Starz, its episodes will be playable across a number of the company’s multiplex channels, including Starz Edge, Starz in Black and Starz Cinema.

And multiple seasons of “Crash” will yield annual boxed sets of DVDs through Starz’s homevideo division Anchor Bay. Lionsgate has foreign rights to the “Crash” series.

Kevin Beggs, president of TV programming and production for Lionsgate, says he’s keeping costs down on “Crash” through tax incentives from the New Mexico state government for all the interiors shot at the company’s studio in Albuquerque. (Cinematographer Russell Lee Fine, shoots lots of exteriors with the cast on location in L.A., where the series, like the movie, is set.)

The show also operates on a seven-day shoot instead of the eight days for a typical broadcast hour, Mazzara says, lowering the cost of an average episode to a still fairly robust $2.3 million or so.

What may be most unusual about “Crash,” says Mazzara, is that “we’re juggling six separate story lines,” which will play out over the 13 hours that Starz has commissioned for the first season, which begins Oct. 17. Since each episode runs only about 45 minutes in real time, the writers will have to keep viewers from getting confused as the show’s editors cut constantly from one set of characters to the next.

If there’s a first among equals in the cast of characters, it’s the self-destructive record producer played by Dennis Hopper, who attacks the role with a relish that could pay dividends when the Emmy voters are filling out their ballots.

But Tim Brooks, the TV historian and former exec VP of research for Lifetime, says that it’s fairly rare for a network primetime series to try to keep its focus on so many different plots that are not directly connected to one another, as they are in shows like “ER” or “Lost.”

Viewers will get some relief, however, from the unrelenting hatred and bigotry that turned most of the movie’s characters into snarling antagonists. First of all, Mazzara hasn’t retained any of the characters from the movie, instead creating a whole new gallery of equally dysfunctional people for the series.

And “if the series focused on the harshness and grimness of the movie,” says Shelanski, “nobody would come back for the next episode.”

The solution: “We’re injecting humor into the series,” says Mazzara.

Although given the brutality of many of the characters, Mazzara amends his comment by saying, “It’s really more like absurdist humor, dark humor.”

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