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‘Blade’ sandwich

TNT to sked new series between 'Law & Order'

NEW YORK — TNT has come up with a unique experiment to lure viewers to watch its new fantasy-action series “Witchblade”: Each of the 11 firstrun “Witchblade” hours will get sandwiched between repeat episodes of “Law & Order,” starting this June in primetime.

Network schedulers are still fine-tuning plans, with the exact weeknight still to be determined, but insiders said the first “Law & Order” hour would run at 8, the “Witchblade” original at 9 and the second “Law & Order” at 10. A TNT spokesman declined to comment on the “Witchblade” scheduling.

Studios USA, the distributor of “Law & Order,” has agreed to allow TNT to jump the gun on its contract by three months. The original deal calls for the network to gain access to the last three seasons of “Law & Order” in September.

TNT’s programmers are so high on the potential of “Law & Order” to funnel viewers to the new series that it has ignored a potential worry: “Witchblade” and “Law & Order” are not exactly compatible in either genre or in demographics.

“Law & Order” is a police/prosecutor series that captures the gritty reality of New York City, often dealing with topical subjects. It chalks up big Nielsens in its original primetime run on NBC and in its multiple repeat pattern on A&E, but the numbers often veer toward the older end of the 25-54 adult audience.

By contrast, “Witchblade” stars Yancy Butler as a New York detective who takes possession of a sword-like weapon that gives her the power “to battle earth’s darkest evil forces.” When TNT ran the backdoor-pilot two-hour movie last August, it averaged a gaudy 4.5 rating in cable homes, but –even more important — it harvested better numbers among adults 18-49 in 2000 than any other original basic-cable movie last year.

TNT is being driven to surround “Witchblade” with a proven commodity like “Law & Order” because the network has failed to come up with a successful firstrun series, having stubbed its toe with “The New Adventures of Robin Hood” in 1996-97, with the final year’s production of “Babylon 5” in 1998 and with last year’s “Bull”; drama about young Wall Street hotshots has been renewed but has struggled to find an audience.

Cable-industry veterans say that with “Witchblade,” TNT is breaking the mold by hammocking a new show between two episodes of a hit repeat — no other cable network has tried it.

But if the test works, distributors of such forthcoming hours as “The West Wing” and “Third Watch” (Warner Bros.), “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (Studios USA), “Judging Amy” (Twentieth TV) and “Family Law” (Columbia TriStar TV Distribution) could find demand shooting up for rerun dramas as cable networks like USA, Lifetime, FX and TNN seek to protect expensive original series.

With “Law & Order,” TNT will have to put up with competition from A&E: Under a previous contract, A&E has the right to strip the first 181 episodes of “Law & Order” until September 2002. But on that date, TNT gets a 10-year exclusive contract to all of the “Law & Order” hours produced through the 2006-07 season.

The executive producers of “Witchblade” are Dan Halsted, for Halsted Pictures, and Marc Silvestri, for Top Cow Prods. Ralph Hemecker is the director. Warner Bros. TV, a sister company of TNT, is a co-producer.

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