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New A&E vidpix born in the USA

Cabler aiming for higher primetime ratings

NEW YORK — Bolstered over the years by British-based fare, A&E will “buy American” in 1998-99, greenlighting its first U.S.-based TV movies and minis.

Included are “Murder in a Small Town” starring Gene Wilder; a biopic about the love affair of authors Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett; a miniseries on the life of P.T. Barnum; and a Hallmark Entertainment version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

These projects, added to A&E’s ongoing production of original series “Biography” and “Investigative Reports,” will catapult the network’s annual programming budget from $112 million in 1997 to $150 million in 1998, according to sources.

While not commenting on the budget figures, Brooke Johnson, executive VP and G.M. of A&E, said that the cable network is pushing to get higher primetime ratings by scheduling more American-themed original movies.

In the past, A&E has co-financed firstrun mysteries, dramas and literary adaptations that were produced in England, but this marks its first longforms with Stateside settings.

A&E’s viewers are used to one-shot movie programming rather than drama series, Johnson said. So even if the Gene Wilder movie — in which he plays a Broadway director who solves a murder in a Connecticut town — pulls in big Nielsens, the character would come back in some fresh two-hour movies, not a series.

Johnson said, “We’re less comfortable with series, which are fraught with peril because it’s hard to keep the quality up. Plus, the economics don’t work for us.” A&E can load the promotional guns for one-shot vidpic, which will cost about $3 million to produce, depending on the scale of the picture.

The Wilder telefilm is a co-production of A&E and the Granada Media Group. The same two companies will do “Dash & Lily,” the Hammett/Hellman docudrama, to be produced by Stan Margulies (“Roots”).

Hallmark will produce “Rue Morgue” and “P.T. Barnum.”

Johnson says A&E will still schedule a full complement of British dramas making their American TV debut, among them two six-hour miniseries from the BBC: “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” starring Richard E. Grant and Elizabeth McGovern, and William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.”

United Film and TV Prods. will deliver eight hours of “Hornblower,” based on the seafaring novels of C. S. Forester, and Granada will do a four-hour adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”

In the reality area, Arnold Shapiro (“Scared Straight”) will produce “L.A. Detectives,” which Johnson said “will document the routine and detail work of typical detectives — we’ll go light on the car crashes.”

A&E also plans to produce 130 new hours of its signature 8 p.m. series “Biography.” The new subjects include Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan of Arc, Jacques Cousteau, Johnny Cash, Arnold Palmer and Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack.

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