Showtime joins Sat. frat

NEW YORK — Showtime is joining HBO and Starz in a major pay-cable assault on the Saturday-night primetime lineups of the broadcast networks.

On Jan. 3 Showtime will kick off a weekly Saturday-at-8 p.m. “Big Time Movie” showcase consisting of both the exclusive premieres of its lineup of theatrical movies and replays of its biggest titles, such as “Jerry Maguire,” “Absolute Power” and “Donnie Brasco.”

HBO instituted the Saturday-premiere strategy back in May of 1992 for the showing of both theatricals and original movies, and John Malone’s Starz also uses Saturday primetime as the vehicle for the debut of its movies, under the umbrella title “Starz Opening Night.”

“The broadcast networks have treated Saturday night as their weakest night for years now,” said Bill Croasdale, president of the national-broadcast division for Western Intl. Media. The audience levels are at their lowest on Saturday night, Croasdale points out, so the networks tend not to lay out big programming dollars to try to keep potential viewers from going out.

But the Nielsen numbers show that enough people do stay home on Saturday to give HBO its highest ratings on the night.

Showtime’s one drawback, sources say, is that unlike HBO and Starz, it doesn’t have the theatrical inventory to guarantee its subscribers a premiere movie every Saturday.

Showtime’s biggest theatrical supplier is TriStar, whose inventory shifts over to HBO early in 1999 as part of a deal HBO struck with Columbia and TriStar two years ago. And Showtime’s new deal with Paramount won’t kick in until late in 1999; HBO owns exclusive pay-cable rights to the Paramount titles until then.

HBO also has long-term deals with 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., DreamWorks and October Films. Starz’s contracts are with Universal, Disney’s Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures, Miramax, New Line and Fine Line, and Imagine Entertainment. Showtime’s main theatrical suppliers are MGM/UA, Polygram, Castle Rock, Live Entertainment, Dimension and Phoenix Pictures.

As part of its new blueprint to brand certain nights of the week, Showtime says it will turn Friday night into “Sci-Friday,” starting on Jan. 23 with a sci-fi movie at 8 followed by episodes of four of its regularly scheduled series: “Stargate SG1,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Hunger” and “Poltergeist: The Legacy.”

Monday at 10 p.m. will become a weekly “Sundance on Showtime” slot, featuring offbeat independent movies such as “When We Were Kings,” “Waiting for Guffman” and “Richard III.”

Showtime and Sundance Channel are sister networks, both owned by Viacom.

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