Dramatic turns

Cable bets on scripted series, offbeat ideas

Summer is finally starting to get dramatic.

Typically a repository for light reality fare, this season will see cable sinking its teeth into some meatier scripted shows.

Cablers from general entertainment giant TNT to niche net IFC are plunking down their biggest and most expensive offerings to lure viewers during the year’s most lazy days.

At ABC Family, president Paul Lee, now a year into the job, says he’s eager to roll out original dramas, letting viewers and advertisers know that HBO isn’t the only place for quality gambits.

“We’re in the business of great storytelling. Scripted series are the best way to show that, to show that we’re focused on being relevant and reflective of today’s families,” Lee says. “We’re very excited about (docudrama) ‘Venus and Serena: For Real.’ But I’d be wrong to say that reality shows would get the same attention.”

FX has readied Steven Bochco’s military hour “Over There” for July. TNT snagged Kyra Sedgwick to star in “The Closer,” a police procedural about a tough female interrogator, and has crime skein “Wanted” on tap for the summer. Turner also will be unleashing “Into the West,” a big-budget mega-epic miniseries from exec producer Steven Spielberg.

USA, which unveils new tagline “Characters Welcome,” this month, has supersized last year’s sci-fi ratings behemoth “The 4400” into a regular 13-episode skein.

Sci Fi Channel will unleash second cycles of dramatic trifecta “Stargate SG-1,” “Stargate Atlantis” and “Battlestar Galactica” on Fridays.

IFC has been ramping up original programming since last year, and its three scripted summers offerings — six-part satire “The Festival,” animated mockumentary “Hopeless Pictures” and the revival of “Greg the Bunny” — continue that trend.

With all the heavyweight competish, USA/Sci Fi president Bonnie Hammer says the tough part is letting people know what’s on and when.

“Before, it was easier not competing with multiple messages and media buys. In that respect, it was easier to break through. Now, you just have to be completely sure you’re product is even better. You can launch in a wasteland but if it’s not good, they’re just not going to come.”

Offbeat comedy, largely missing from net skeds, will get a big boost this summer. Basic cable has yet to mine a hit conventional sitcom but execs from the ad-supported and pay universes are gambling on the format while broadcasters continue to stumble.

Now that Cartoon Network’s latenight Adult Swim block has proved there is a loyal following on cable for unconventional laughs, FX and Showtime are getting behind new comedies.

FX has taken a chance on lesser-known scribes Eric Schaeffer and Rob McElhenney with “Starved,” about a group of friends with eating disorders, and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” centered on four Gen-Xers who own a bar.

Over at Showtime, topper Robert Greenblatt will take his second and third stabs at comedies with “Weeds,” starring Mary-Louise Parker as a marijuana-selling suburban mom, and a small-screen version of “Barbershop.”

With the third season of “Chappelle’s Show” in limbo, Comedy Central will attempt to recover with three talkers, from D.L. Hughley, Adam Corolla and “The Daily Show” fixture Stephen Colbert.

Of course, reality is still a staple — but even cablers banking on unscripted fare are making sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle. E!, Bravo, TBS and MTV are unleashing dozens of reality series among them.

E! continues to expand its profile beyond red-carpet affairs with a slew of series including one centered on the women of Playboy Mansion, another set at the Palms in Las Vegas, and a third involving celebrity kids forced to endure a cattle drive.

With six new series — E!’s most aggressive slate to date — prexy-CEO Ted Harbert refers to summer as cable’s fall season.

“The original plan was to pace stuff throughout the year, but it’s been very competitive and I can’t afford to be caught without a lot,” he says.

To help his new shows break through the summer clutter, Harbert will reveal on Memorial Day weekend an on-air redesign centered on the cabler’s new tag, “We love it too.”

TBS-TNT exec VP Steve Koonin says even pitted against other cablers best shows, summer has always been preferable as a stomping ground for wired world. “There is no evidence of cannibalization (among cable nets). No loss of ratings points,” he says. “It’s a particularly crowded summer this time, so we’ll have to assess if this (quality) stays through at the end of this season.”

Exec hopes that the Pauly Shore comedy “Minding the Store,” an unscripted look at the comic’s attempt to revive and run the Comedy Store in Hollywood, will take off. Ditto the return of “The Real Gilligan’s Island.”

MTV, meanwhile, finally takes on the home-makeover genre with the 10-part parody “Trailer Fabulous.” Net also will send “Real World” back in time with “That ’70s House,” an elimination series that situates a group of teens in a house straight out of that decade, where they’ll be forced to ditch their cell phones, watch TV on a 13-inch screen and say “far out” instead of “hot.”

Bravo is counting on B-list celebs Bobby Brown, Kathy Griffin and Howie Mandel to put a spin on the docusoap genre. Mandel’s “Hidden Howie” will be a reality/scripted hybrid featuring the sort of comedic bits he did on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Trio/Bravo topper Lauren Zalaznick will make her play for summer eyeballs by extending her primetime past 10 p.m. She credits Comedy Central and Adult Swim for attracting later-night comedy auds.

“It’s a good place for cable to explore since we aren’t bound by network news or a traditional latenight format.

“No matter what broadcasters say about 52 weeks of programming, there is a fall season, sweeps and pilot season,” Zalaznick says. “Summer is cable’s time. It’s when people are ready to take a chance on shows and it’s a good place to connect with them in order to lure them back in fall and winter.”