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‘West Wing’ capitalizes on Lifetime first-run drive

D.C.-based drama competing for slot

NEW YORK — Columbia TriStar TV Distribution has signed a deal with Lifetime to produce “West Wing,” a pilot for a weekly hourlong series set in the political and social world of Washington, D.C.

Sources say the 60-minute pilot, now being filmed in Toronto, will cost about $2 million, and, if “West Wing” goes to series, each episode will cost about $1 million, comparable to the $1.2-million average for each hour of a network primetime drama.

The show is about two women (Marcia Cross and Annabeth Gish), friends from college, who end up in careers that make them antagonists: One is a deputy White House press secretary and the other is a TV-news correspondent. Allan Arkush will direct the pilot; Tammy Ader is the writer. Ader is also co-executive producer with Jonathan Prince.

“West Wing” is competing with an unnamed pilot for an hourlong drama series, which will go into production in March. Lifetime will pick up 13 guaranteed episodes of one to begin on the primetime schedule in August.

Lifetime is also close to giving the go-ahead for two still unidentified half-hour comedy pilots, one of which will get a 13-episode commitment, to kick off by midsummer.

The push for scripted original series by Lifetime is part of an ongoing effort to ramp up its percentage of firstrun programming. Highlights of this initiative include:

– An increase in the number of made-for-Lifetime movies to 14 in 1998.

– A record order of 60 new “Intimate Portraits” hours, consisting of biographies of well-known women.

– The March 9 premiere of “New Attitudes,” the nightly half-hour magazine that deals with “fitness, fashion and finances.” Hosts are Leanza Cornett and Suzanne Whang; exec producers are Eric Scholtz and Robin Sestero.

– The second-annual two-hour “Lifetime Women’s Film Festival,” with Penny Marshall as host, featuring four short films directed by women.