‘Passions’ heads up the 101

Satellite network revives NBC soap

When a broadcast network cancels a daytime soap opera, that’s the end of the line. The reruns may turn up on Soap Net for a while, but the actors, writers and directors get busy emailing their head shots to casting agents.

So when NBC disclosed in January that it would wind down production of sultry afternoon sudser “Passions” — the death sentence to be executed in late summer — fans of the show went into mourning.

Eleventh-hour pardons usually happen only in stale melodramas, but an under-the-radar satellite network called the 101, available only to the 16.3 million subscribers of DirecTV, supplied the deus ex machina: “Passions” will stay in production for scheduling by the 101 after its exodus from NBC.

“We don’t follow a lot of rules at the 101,” says Eric Shanks, executive VP of entertainment for DirecTV. The exclusive 101 run of “Passions” kicks off Sept. 17 in the same 2 p.m. time period where it racked up an eight-year cycle on NBC. The 101 schedules a repeat of each play at 7 p.m., adding a Saturday marathon of the previous week’s episodes, starting at 10 a.m.

“For a major content provider like NBC Universal, having another outlet come along like the 101 is a godsend,” says Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. Universal also produces “Passions.”

Graboff went out of his way to insist that the 101 will pay a sufficient license fee “to keep the creative team and the principal cast members of ‘Passions’ intact. The production values will continue to be rich and robust. We didn’t go through all this to turn ‘Passions’ into hand-puppet theater.”

DirecTV created the 101 (named for its position on the dial) last year at least in part to offer its subscribers exclusive programming they can’t get on cable. DirecTV is looking for any edge it can get: As a technologically limited satellite distributor, the company can’t match the triple-play package of telephone service, high-speed broadband and video that its main rival, cable TV, is making inroads with.

Shanks says fresh episodes of “Passions” may even induce people to cancel their cable subscriptions and buy a satellite dish. “We did some online research with fans of ‘Passions,’ and found that a surprisingly high percentage say they’d switch to DirecTV to see it.”

Research like that emboldened Shanks to consider continuing the production of such canceled cult primetime hits as Fox’s “Arrested Development” and CBS’ “Jericho” — although he couldn’t put together a deal for either one. (“Jericho” ended up landing a late second-season renewal from CBS, but “Arrested” appears to be dead.)

But Shanks did engineer a deal with the Disney Channel to get the triple-run premiere on Aug. 24 of the high-definition telecast of “High School Musical 2.” During its world premiere telecast on Disney, the blockbuster original movie drew 17.2 million viewers — more than any other program in cable history.

The high-def version of “Musical 2” is not unusual: More than half of the 101’s programming is HD, and when DirecTV adds another satellite later this year, that figure will go up to 90%.

The 101 has an elaborate arrangement with Showtime, helping it to market the second-season premiere later this month of its scripted original series “Brotherhood” and “Dexter” by scheduling multiple runs of the 12 “Dexter” episodes from the first year and last year’s 11 “Brotherhood” hours. It’s a barter deal: No cash changes hands, and both sides benefit.

One of the 101’s highest visibility originals, “The Championship Gaming Series,” is aimed at young male viewers who dote on videogames. The series features professional gamers from all over the world who compete for more than $100 million in prize money every year.

Another original reality series, “Project MyWorld,” follows two young women who travel to Europe and Australia, seeking out through MySpace locals who can show them out-of-the-way places not frequented by tourists.

And if you want music, the 101 is bursting at the seams with multiple hours a day of exclusive concerts.

“We’re the largest producer and distributor of live music performances in the business,” says Shanks.

Conor McAnally, executive producer of Blaze TV, which produces the bulk of the 101’s original-music programming, says the network went live with wall-to-wall performances from the South by Southwest music festival in March — eight hours a day for three straight days.

In addition to hourlong concerts featuring performers like Gwen Stefani, the Pussycat Dolls, Macy Gray and Black-Eyed Peas, the 101 schedules musicvideos under the umbrella titles “CD USA” and “Havoc.”

The 101 is ad-supported, but Shanks acknowledges that “it’s hard to get advertisers interested in an inhouse channel with a base of only 16.3 million.”

But the network can live with a modest revenue stream from Madison Avenue because of a bigger agenda: fighting its cable rivals with lots of programming available to nobody else but DirecTV customers.

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