A&E rides with spies, Sin City

Net will sport secret agents, docsoaps

Coming off the highest-rated year in its history, A&E is launching an aggressive 2005 lineup with more character-driven docusoaps and another season of spy serial “MI-5,” as well as a heavy development slate.

Cabler has greenlit skeins revolving around a Palms Casino-based tattoo parlor, magician Criss Angel and women’s roller derby. In addition, cabler had ordered a fourth season of “MI-5.”

A&E programming chief Robert DeBitetto is expected to announce the projects today at the Television Critics’ Assn. press tour.

New projects extend the net’s dominance in the reality TV category on cable — its unscripted shows have vaulted what was a ratings-challenged network in 2002 into a top-performing service. Under DeBitetto and topper Abbe Raven, A&E launched five successful unscripted shows in late 2003 and through 2004 — “Airline,” “Family Plots,” “Growing Up Gotti,” “First 48” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter” — which earned the network billing as the fastest-growing cabler in the key 18-34 and 18-49 demographics last year. All five series received orders for additional seasons.

New shows on tap for this year include the following:

  • “Inked” takes a look at the owners of the Hart & Huntington Tattoo Co., the first to operate out of a Vegas casino. Fox TV Studios produces in association with Foglight Entertainment.

  • “Criss Angel” is a performance series centered on illusionist Angel, who specializes in unannounced on-the-street performances and public demonstrations. First TV and Angel Prods. produce.

  • “Roller Girls” chronicles the phenomenon of women’s competitive roller derby in Austin, Texas, the epicenter of the growing trend. Skeins follow the women as they go through training and competitions. Go Go Luckey Prods. (MTV’s “Laguna Beach”) produce.

DeBitetto said injecting some humor into the A&E lineup was a top priority when he came aboard a few years back.

Serious and light

“We’re trying to offer a variety of tones, some comedic and some more serious,” DeBitetto said. “With ‘Gotti,’ there are definitely pratfalls, but also her being a single mom trying to raise three growing guys.”

A&E will devote several nights to real-life programming, which will include the upcoming launches of “Knievel’s Wild Ride,” centered on the life of Evel’s son Robbie; “Caesars 24/7,” which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Las Vegas resort; “Being,” a bioseries from exec producer Mick Jagger; and “Intervention,” a show that compels people to confront their inner demons (Daily Variety, June 14).

On the sked to date, “Knievel” will be paired with the second cycle of “Dog” on Tuesday nights beginning April 5, and “Intervention” will bow Sundays starting March 6.

“MI-5,” meanwhile, kicks off its third season this month, with a fourth season expected to roll out in January 2006.

‘Real commitment’

“We’ve made a real commitment to that show,” DeBitetto said, adding that the net would dabble with more scripted series projects next year.

A&E is also rolling out an ambitious development slate that includes these series projects:

  • “Spying on Myself,” from Scott Sternberg Prods., lets willing participants find out what people really think of them by sending them in disguise to find out.

  • “Married in Vegas,” from Lighthearted Entertainment, chronicles the day-to-day of the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.

  • “Whipped,” from City Lights TV, challenges spouses to get their significant others to do their bidding for 48 straight hours and catch it on hidden cameras.

  • “Single Again,” from True Entertainment and Endemol, offers a couple that’s been together for years a chance to relive the single life. Partners will move out of their homes, dividing up all belongings, and spend a month apart to see if their relationship is meant to last.

  • “Little Red Man,” from Granada, unleashes a literal little red man on unsuspecting people who have forgotten something important (e.g., money owed to a friend, a birthday). The little red man will visit the person at inopportune moments until their memory comes back.

DeBitetto admitted that while some of the concepts sound light for an arts and entertainment network, “none of these shows are frivolous. They sound funny, but at their core, they are what all our shows are: explorations of the real problems of real people.”

‘Unresolved issues’

“At the root of most of it, are unresolved issues and compelling stories,” he added.

On the longform front, A&E is developing a miniseries inspired by the New York power blackout and is still tweaking the script for a planned Hillary Clinton biopic. Coming up are “See Arnold Run” and “Faith of My Fathers,” about Sen. John McCain’s younger years as a military man.

Also on tap are the off-net dramas “24” this fall and “CSI: Miami” in fall 2006.