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TNN Joins the Scripted-Series Crowd

10/10/1999 8:00 PM Eastern

In the midst of a programming revamping, The NashvilleNetwork is jumping on the bandwagon with cable's hottest trend: scripted fictionalseries.

TNN will debut its first original dramatic series, 18Wheels of Justice, in January. The network, part of CBS Cable, has acquired 22episodes of the hour-long weekly action series from Eyemark Entertainment, which, likeTNN, is part of CBS Corp.

TNN is in the process of expanding its program lineupbeyond music and videos, to offer wider entertainment fare for a broader audience thanjust country-music fans. And 18 Wheels fits into that game plan.

"Without question, we've had a enormous amount ofsuccess with licensed drama properties, like Dallas and The Waltons,"TNN vice president of programming Brian Hughes said. "So we've had the desire todo something in the form of an [original] long-form drama,"

TNN will debut other shows early next year, according toHughes, but he wouldn't specify what they are yet.

New series 18 Wheels began production in SouthernCalifornia last month, with a cast that includes Lucky Vanous, Billy Dee Williams and G.Gordon Liddy.

Vanous portrays a special agent for the Department ofJustice who goes underground to escape the reach of a crime boss. He hits the highwaydisguised as a trucker, traveling in a state-of-the-art Kenworth Truck Co."T2000." Liddy plays the crime boss.

Scripted fictional series and hour-long dramas are thehottest trends in cable now. Sci Fi Channel just unveiled its plans for 20 episodes of Lexx,an hour-long drama about four misfits who have inadvertently stolen a powerful weapon: agenetically modified insect named the Lexx. It will debut in January.

And USA Network early next year will premiere hour-longdrama Just Act Normal, about an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation. Shaun Cassidy is the show's writer and executive producer. Productionon Just Act Normal, tentatively slated to air Tuesday nights, startsthis month.

TNN's new 18 Wheels will also feature music andcameo and guest appearances by known and emerging country-music artists. For example, theshow's premiere episode will feature the debut of a new video by MCA Records artistGary Allan.

Hughes pointed out that country artists have increasinglybeen making appearances on TV series, like Tricia Yearwood on JAG.

As part of its strategy to widen its audience by expandingbeyond country music and into "country lifestyle" programming, this past summer,TNN canceled a number of long-running shows that focused on country music.

It also acquired a package of 38 theatricals to use as thebase for a primetime-movie night on Thursdays, to go along with its past acquisitions ofoff-network series The Waltons, Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard, TheReal McCoys and Alice. The movie block, called "Sofa Cinema,"premiered Sept. 30.

"The long-term evolution has been one of growing ourbusiness through our extension into country lifestyle," Hughes said. "We want todo a variety of programming that appeals to as large an audience as possible."

Not everyone likes those changes. One cable operatorcomplained that the network is straying away from its original mandate and becoming justanother broad-based entertainment network, with fare such as wrestling.

One of the cornerstones of TNN's new programming tackhas been its creation of a male-targeted Friday-night "Thrill Zone" block thatincludes WSL RollerJam, Professional Bull Riders Championship Rodeo,Motor Madness and Extreme Championship Wrestling.

TNN's ratings for men 18 to 34 are up 224 percent forits ECW show, compared with what the time slot was averaging earlier this year,before the show went on the air, according to network officials.

But in the third quarter, TNN's primetime ratings weredown 13 percent, to a 0.7 from a 0.8 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Eyemark is known for its work as a syndicator-producer forshows such as James Brolin's Pensacola: Wings of Gold. But 18 Wheels willmark the first scripted drama Eyemark has done for an outlet other than syndication,according to senior vice president of business and program development Robb Dalton.

Dalton added that Eyemark and TNN are in touch oftenbecause they are both part of CBS. "They wanted to get into scripted dramas," hesaid. "We came across this project and it looked perfect for them."

TNN did an original movie in 1988, Nashville Beat,which starred Martin Milner, according to Hughes. But he noted that doing an originalseries requires a lot more resources.

In the case of 18 Wheels, part of its costswill be offset by international sales, he said, adding, "International is part of theformula."

September