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Scripting a New Strategy

11/18/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

USA Network and FX watch out: You won’t be the only basic-cable networks trying to come up with breakout series hits anymore.

AMC, which once stood for American Movie Classics, wants to launch two hour-long series by 2007. Spike TV, trying to cut to the heart of the male nation, will debut at least two series next year — one possibly involving the “Vampire Nation,” Blade.

AMC and Spike TV executives hope the new shows will generate buzz like USA’s obsessive-compulsive cop show, Monk, or FX’s Nip/Tuck, about greed and lust among plastic surgeons, while also appealing to their networks’ core audiences.

HOPING FOR A BREAKOUT

“We realize that any channel that wants to stand out in a crowded market has to produce original scripted programming,” Spike executive vice president of original programming Pancho Mansfield said. “We’re looking to develop fun, original series with a male point of view.”

A hit series can redefine a network. FX was struggling, getting only 0.5% of the households that could watch it to view its programs in primetime, before the 2002 debut of gritty cop drama The Shield and the 2003 premiere of Nip/Tuck. Their success has helped the network double its viewership: FX averaged a 1.0 primetime rating in the third quarter of this year.

But the cable-programming landscape is also littered with scripted failures. For every hit series like Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica, Turner Network Television’s The Closer and USA Network’s Dead Zone, there are more shows, such as USA’s Peacemakers and Lifetime’s Wild Card, that didn’t survive past freshman or sophomore runs.

This year alone, Lifetime decided to cancel The Division and Strong Medicine, basic-cable’s longest running original drama will end after its sixth season, due to falling ratings. Elsewhere, USA Network hasn’t decided whether to bring back Ving Rhames as Kojak, after its lukewarm numbers this year.

AMC and Spike have also struck out before. In the late 1990s, AMC failed to build on its then classic-film imprimatur with the launch of Remember WENN, where comedy, nostalgia and drama were drawn out of a 1939 Pittsburgh radio station, and again in 2001 with the short-lived series The Lot, set in a 1930s Hollywood studio.

Spike’s initial scripted bets came in 2003, with three cartoons, Stripperella, Gary the Rat and Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon. All failed to animate viewers and were cancelled after one season.

Undaunted, both AMC and Spike are hoping to turn their next gambles into ratings gold. Boosted by reruns of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, as well the combat-sports franchise Ultimate Fighting Championship and a reality series based on it, Spike tallied a 1.3 household rating in the third quarter, 30% over last year.

But Spike has yet to create a breakthrough non-ring original sports series in the two years since changed its moniker from TNN: The National Network, and shifted its focus toward the male viewer.

Mansfeld, whom Spike president Doug Herzog told four months ago to create new original projects, said scripted fare marks the channel’s next evolution. “As the network becomes more successful and gets more brand recognition, you have to develop originals, and at the core of that is scripted programming,” he said.

Spike will launch its first original series pilot, Blade — based on the theatrical movie series that starred Wesley Snipes as a half-human fighting a Vampire Nation that wants to rule the world — next summer. Spike hopes to turn that into a regular series.

Among other pilots Spike is considering: the science-fiction tinged Amped, which centers on an mysterious infection that breaks out in Los Angeles; The Big Empty, produced by Denis Leary (Rescue Me) and about the lives of private investigators caught in an unsavory world; Paradise Salvage, a lost-treasure adventure; and Crystal Meth Cowboys, about a by-the-book Boston cop who takes up residence in a small New Mexico town.

CINEMATIC LEANINGS

AMC picked up a 25% rating gain in the third quarter, to a 1.0 in primetime, from airing more contemporary movies and documentaries. To get another pop — and shake its reputation as purely a purveyor of vintage movies — scripted series will be key, officials said.

“It shows the direction that we’re going toward and I think we’re trying to take the movies that we’re showing to the next level by creating our own shows,” said Christina Wayne, recently hired as vice president of scripted series and movies.

Wayne would not reveal specific pilot ideas. But she said prospective series will be “very cinematic” and include high-profile Hollywood talent. The network’s upcoming original scripted miniseries Broken Trail, starring Robert Duvall, is the type of high-quality, talent-laden show the network wants to develop, she said.

“We took a big movie genre like a Western and did our spin on it for a miniseries,” said Wayne, who consulted with AMC on the Trail project. “We’re looking at movie genres like sci-fi, thrillers and horror that we can turn into series.”

September