Upfronts With a Bang

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Cable’s pre-upfront campaign to win hearts, minds and dollars on Madison Avenue continued on many fronts in Manhattan last week.
In last year’s tough economic terrain, many cable networks cut back or even cut out the kinds of lavish, star-studded presentations that the well-equipped broadcaster troops mount for advertisers each year. But in the asymmetrical warfare between broadcast and cable, perception can be an important tool. And this year some cable networks were back with a show-biz bang, putting on glittery events with talent that included Wynonna at Lifetime’s breakfast presentation for about 500 in a midtown hotel ballroom and Cirque du Soleil at Bravo’s posh dinner for 300 at a prominent midtown restaurant. A report on the Manhattan cable upfronts from one correspondent embedded with the account execs follows.
Lifetime Television will spend $800 million for programming over the next two years, as measured from third quarter 2003 to third quarter 2005, an increase of $100 million over the previous two-year period.
“Never before have we invested at this level,” Carole Black, president and CEO, Lifetime Entertainment Services, told the assembled buyers.
In addition, the network is planning to invest another $100 million in its marketing efforts during the period, a 25 percent increase over the previous marketing budget, according to a Lifetime spokeswoman.
The network for women also is planning to launch a second night of original programming, adding a two-hour Saturday block this August to its current Sunday night of all-original prime-time programming. Four pilots, all previously announced, are in contention for the new Saturday spots. They are Nick and Shelly, about two detectives, divorced from each other, who still solve crimes together; Follow the Leeds, about two suburban women who run a private investigation business with the help of their mother; 1-800-Missing, about a female FBI agent whose partner is a young woman who has the psychic ability to find missing people; and Wild Card, about a former Las Vegas blackjack dealer who assumes care of her sister’s children and stumbles into a career as an insurance fraud investigator.
For the 2003-04 season nearly 60 percent of the network’s lineup will consist of original programming, the highest percentage in its history.
The network is also planning a Designing Women reunion special and a Golden Girls retrospective, each to be 90 minutes. Limited-run reality programming coming from Lifetime includes Secret Lives, set for June, which tells the stories of people who have led double lives.
Bravo, the advertising-supported arts-and-entertainment cable network recently purchased by NBC, unveiled its first upfront schedule under the sign of the Peacock.
Centerpieces of the network’s new programming include the Cirque du Soleil Variety Show, 13 one-hour episodes scheduled to begin in the second quarter of 2004; The Reality of Reality, five one-hours that will examine TV’s hottest genre, set for the third quarter; The Sexiest Moments in Film and Television, also five one-hours, set for the third quarter of 2004; The TV Revolution, also five one-hours, a look at TV’s most important shows, set for the second quarter of 2004; The Greatest TV Characters of All Time, also five one-hours, set for the third quarter of 2004; and the previously announced reality makeover series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, 12 one-hour episodes scheduled to begin this July.
High on the presentation agenda was a reassurance from Jeff Gaspin, who not only heads Bravo but also is NBC’s head of alternative (i.e., reality) programming. “Will we become a repurposing network? Will we change [Bravo] from an arts-and-entertainment network?” he asked rhetorically. “The answer to both questions is no.”
Mr. Gaspin predicted double-digit increases for Bravo-at a “minimum”-in this year’s upfront.
Also on Mr. Gaspin’s to-do list are two original telefilms for next season. Ideally, he would premiere one on Bravo and then also air it on NBC, while the second would premiere on NBC before moving to the cable network for a second run. Neither movie has been selected from the development possibilities yet, he said.
When NBC and Bravo begin to air this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Chicago, in the 2005-06 season, it will have approximately 15 minutes of new footage, including at least one additional Queen Latifah song, Mr. Gaspin said.
NBC’s The West Wing will have its basic cable premiere this August on Bravo. Mr. Gaspin intends to run it along with such promotable politically themed theatrical features as Absolute Power and The American President. The latter was written by Aaron Sorkin, West Wing’s creator.
Sci-Fi Channel was so taken with the response to Steven Spielberg’s Taken, the recent epic miniseries that drew record ratings for the network, that it is now in discussions with Mr. Spielberg and DreamWorks Television to collaborate on another “maxi-miniseries.”
This time, though, the project won’t unfold in 10 consecutive two-hour segments, as Taken did, but will be telecast instead in three six-hour parts, with each part unfolding in consecutive quarters, according to Bonnie Hammer, the channel’s president. She offered only a hint of the Spielberg project in development, calling it Sci-Fi’s answer to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
More Miniseries
Other miniseries on the network’s slate include 6 Days ’til Sunday, a six-hour miniseries from Lions Gate, set to air on six consecutive nights in the first quarter of 2004, in which a man has six days to prevent his own murder; and The Thing, a new four-hour version of the ’50s cult classic.
Reality is also on Sci-Fi’s slate, with Life on Mars, its off-world take on Survivor, in which two “colonies” of contestants attempt to live in a realistic Mars base; Mad Mad House, in which contestants compete in “bizarre” challenges; and Lab Rats, in which various miracle promises and claims are put to the test.
Other series and pilot highlights:
Dead Lawyers, also from DreamWorks-a one-hour series in which dead lawyers come back to life to redeem themselves by forming a law firm and taking pro bono cases.
The Divide, from Lions Gate-a mystery series in which a late-night disc jockey, his dead twin sister and the local coroner team up to fight crime.
Legion, with Whoopi Goldberg aboard as an executive producer-a series about a young man who sells his soul to the devil to save his daughter’s life.
Stargate: Atlantis, from MGM Worldwide Television-a spinoff from the series and movie.
Sci-Fi will double its programming budget over the next two years, with a focus on original productions, Ms. Hammer said.
At press time, MTV was set to launch its slate during a presentation Friday morning at a Broadway theater. In advance, the Viacom music network announced two new series commitments-one to an untitled reality series chronicling the first year of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s marriage and the other to The New Tom Green Talk Show, a nightly hour.
Ms. Simpson and Mr. Lachey (98 Degrees) are two well-known pop stars who will be followed by MTV cameras as they set up house and record their respective new albums. Mr. Green’s new late-night talk show is scheduled to debut June 16.