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NEW ORLEANS — While MTV’s wildly successful “The Osbournes” got nothing less than presidential treatment over the weekend, but cable net execs aren’t under any illusions that they’ve steered clear of the perils of original programming.

Disney Channel prexy Rich Ross, E! Entertainment prexy-CEO Mindy Herman and USA Networks prexy Doug Herzog were among those debating the issue Sunday as the cable industry’s annual confab got under way in New Orleans. Show, hosted by the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., runs through Thursday.

No one would have imagined a month ago that “Osbournes,” featuring aging rock star Ozzy Osbourne and his family, would have any impact on the mood of the cable convention. Almost as quickly as it began airing, the TV show has turned into a cultural phenomenon and served as a boost to the crippled TV ad market.

Osbourne also made a very real-life splash in Washington over the weekend, at the celebrity-packed White House Correspondents dinner. When President Bush recognized Osbourne, the aud went crazy.

“OK, Ozzy… Might have been a mistake,” Bush quipped.

Congrats to ‘Osbournes’

Herzog and the others speaking on the Sunday Panel, “The Tenor of Cable After ‘The Sopranos,’ ” also congratulated MTV for “Osbournes.” They said they have no doubt that broadcasters are rushing to emulate the show — proving that cable has some of the best ideas, first.

Fine Living prexy Kenneth Solomon and BBC America Chief Operating Officer Paul Lee also took part in the afternoon session.

The panelists said they have learned to take a cautious approach before making any commitment to original programming.

“We are in the process of defining who we are in terms of original programming,” Herzog said. “As with anybody else, it’s really hard to find that one thing that will break through.”

Herman said broadcast nets continue to have an advantage in that they are often approached first about a new show.

At the same time, cable nets can woo a new production by promising to air the first 20 or so episodes, Ross said.

Question of resources

It also can be easier for a broadcast net to market a new show, and attract viewers, panelists said. Much can also depend upon who owns the cable net. If it’s a company such as Viacom or News Corp., there are more resources.

Ross and Herman said a cable net should never forsake its niche. For instance, people turn to E! because they want information about the entertainment world.

Herzog is in a different position, since USA is general interest, aside from having different themes on a particular night, such as action or crime. “Our approach is to be niche at night,” he said.

For cable nets, the careful strategy seems to be paying off. In April, for the first time in a non-summer month, ad-supported cable networks, as a category, beat the six broadcast networks in primetime.