Trio picks up `I, Claudius’

Aug 20, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It sounds like “The Sopranos,” but it’s not.
Trio, USA Cable’s “emerging” popular-arts digital network, has acquired “I, Claudius,” the much-honored 13-hour BBC 1972 miniseries about an unlikely, anxiety-ridden family leader, a scheming mother named Livia and various more-or-less bloodthirsty, crazed family members who kill each other off as they scheme for power.
But this family, which includes the mad emperor Caligula, wears togas, not leisure suits, and it vies for power in ancient imperial Rome, not in present-day northern New Jersey. The major characters and the complications of the plot, which range from incest to uprisings, are based on real figures and events from the history of the Roman Empire. The cast includes Derek Jacobi as Claudius and John Hurt as Caligula as well as Patrick Stewart, Brian Blessed and Sian Philips.
Trio executives have not yet decided how to schedule “Claudius,” but the most likely scenario will be a fourth-quarter 2001 marathon, followed by weekly broadcasts of individual episodes beginning in the first quarter of 2002, said Kris Slava, Trio’s vice president of acquisitions and scheduling.
Trio also has acquired broadcast rights to “Portrait of a Lady,” starring Nicole Kidman, the 1996 theatrical feature based on the Henry James novel of the same name, and to the Lee J. Cobb-starring version of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which originally aired on CBS in 1966 and has not been seen for more than three decades. In addition to Mr. Cobb as Willy Loman, this television version of the play stars George Segal and Gene Wilder. It will debut on Trio Sept. 30 and run eight times over the following six months. Mr. Segal (“Just Shoot Me”) will introduce the play when it debuts on Trio.
The play is one example of an “open-ended series of classic theater made for either television or for film” that Trio hopes to acquire, Mr. Slava said. “We are looking for landmark, still-as-good-today-as-the-day-they-were-shot productions.”
Trio also has commissioned a one-hour companion documentary for its previously announced broadcasts of the 1998 theatrical feature “Elizabeth,” starring Cate Blanchett in the story of the early, intrigue-filled reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The documentary has the expository title, “The Real Elizabeth: Virgin Warrior Queen.”
Trio’s focus in coming months and years will be on original programming and on programming never before seen in the United States, according to both Bill Haber, Trio’s president and CEO, and Patrick Vien, president, emerging networks, USA Cable.
One Trio signature will be 25 two-hour segments of “something very important,” as Mr. Haber put it, that both he and Mr. Slava declined to further identify. Mr. Haber did say the acquisition was not of plays and that, as part of the acquisition, Trio has agreed not to break into the programming with advertising.
“We will have to advertise [this] in a different way,” he said, pointing to the British model in which advertising appears before and after a program but not during it.
“We won’t look like the other cable services,” Mr. Haber said of Trio’s general strategy. “We’re not going to do repeats of `West Wing’ or `thirtysomething.”’
The plan for Trio is not to “repurpose” or “reprogram,” Mr. Vien said.
An exception to the reprogram rule is 1970s variety series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which Trio recently began telecasting from digitally remastered tapes. It too has not been seen in its original format for more than three decades. “We bought it because it was unique and an icon,” Mr. Haber said. “Would we do that again in six months? I suggest that we would not. We’re not looking to become TV Land.”
One popular arts landmark that soon will be on Trio is its 10-hour, two-day coverage of the 2001 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which is set for broadcast from Sept. 1 to 2 and will be hosted by Branford Marsalis.