Though the cable industry has cause to celebrate its record-breaking summer ratings, cable networks rolled out panel after panel of morose, despondent programming at the Television Critics Association’s semiannual press tour last week.
Reporters and critics watched panels showcasing a depressed psychiatrist (Showtime’s “!Huff”), a tragically killed NASCAR racer (ESPN’s “3”), the War of 1812 (History Channel’s “First Invasion”), an 11-year-old quadriplegic (A&E’s “The Brooke Ellison Story”), a pack of grim reapers (Showtime’s “Dead Like Me”) and an examination of human organ donation (Discovery Health’s “Gift of Life”).
To lighten the mood, Showtime held a dinner party at a Hollywood cemetery, allowing reporters a chance to gaze upon gravestones and crypts while poking at their dinner amid machine-generated fog.
At least a few panel attendees and executives showed signs of life. The high point of the conference came early, when Showtime Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt announced to the “!Huff” panel on-stage that the show would receive a second-season renewal-an unprecedented four months before the show’s premiere.
“We’ve seen five episodes of this show, and we’ve seen scripts for five more, and we couldn’t be happier,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “I don’t know if anybody will watch, but we’ll be watching.”
Actress Paget Brewster, who has never starred in a show that lasted more than a single season, joyously exclaimed, “The curse is over!”
Showtime’s speedy pickup of “!Huff” made HBO’s pickup of “Entourage” after a single episode seem slow by comparison.
Showtime also announced a six-episode half-hour comedy called “Fat Actress,” starring Kirstie Alley. In the show, Ms. Alley plays a semi-fictitious version of herself, described as a Hollywood star struggling with weight gain and searching for true love.
The slate was part of what the network is dubbing “The New Face of Showtime,” though Mr. Greenblatt described the line as only a temporary replacement for the now-defunct “No Limits” brand.
The Turner panel made headlines as well-though not for the reasons executives had hoped. During the panel for TNT’s telepic “Evel Knievel,” star George Eads said his highly publicized firing from “CSI” over a salary negotiation was a “misunderstanding” and that he missed work because he overslept. Mr. Eads also said trying to get a meeting with CBS head Leslie Moonves to discuss the situation was like trying to meet the enigmatic Charlie from “Charlie’s Angels.”
At HBO’s session, Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht confirmed that “Sex and the City” actress Kim Cattrall single-handedly sank the planned theatrical movie of the series. “It’s a very unfortunate situation,” he said.
Mr. Albrecht did give hope to “Sopranos” fans who must wait until 2006 for the final installment. Though Mr. Albrecht said the schedule is firm, he revealed that he has asked creator David Chase to consider producing more than the planned 10 episodes for the final season, which airs in 2006. “We’ve talked to David about it and he hasn’t said no,” Mr. Albrecht said.
Other cable networks made news during the press tour last week. Highlights follow.
Since assuming his new post as E! Networks president and CEO, Ted Harbert said he has taken steps to soothe Hollywood talent embittered by E! Entertainment Television’s tabloid-style programming. Though E! has denied media reports that shows such as “Celebrities Uncensored” alienated the community they rely on for content, Mr. Harbert told TelevisionWeek before taking the TCA stage that he has had “discussions with some high-level studio executives” about the issue. “To their credit, they haven’t rubbed my face in the dirt. They said, `We trust it will be taken care of,”‘ Mr. Harbert said. At the same time, he said, “There’s no way I can guarantee somebody’s not going to get rubbed the wrong way.”
Meanwhile, E! Networks’ Style network said the following reality shows will debut later this year: “Ultimatum,” “Diary of An Affair,” “Hotspot: The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel” and “Love’s a Trip.”
MTV Networks introduced programming for its planned gay and lesbian channel, LOGO. MTV acquired 150 movie and documentaries for the digital channel, which launches Feb. 17, 2005. Titles include “Philadelphia,” “The Birdcage,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Gods and Monsters.”
Among the tentatively titled planned series, a few, such as “Big Gay 100,” are produced by Viacom sister channels. Projects include “Fantastic Voyage,” a reality venture on a seven-day gay cruise produced by Bunim-Murray in conjunction with Atlantis Vacations; “Logo Lens,” an exploration of gay issues by MTV News; animated series “Chelsea Boys”; marriage-themed reality show “Do I?”; panel show “Twist; and star vehicles for actor Alan Cumming and comedian Margaret Cho.
Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi Channel and USA Networks, apologized for creating a hoax designed to deceive the press and public into believing there was a fight between the network and “Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan. Sci Fi sent a bogus press release detailing the controversy and set up a fake publicist to deceive reporters who called about the issue. At TCA, Ms. Hammer said, “We would never intentionally try to deceive any of you.
“If I had a time machine, I would go back and try to change a couple things,” Ms. Hammer said. “I can assure you it will never happen again.”
Ms. Hammer refused to say whose idea the hoax was or whether she anticipated a negative reaction.
Bravo announced a new reality series called “Situation Comedy,” produced by “Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes. The production is currently accepting unproduced original sitcom scripts from amateur writers. The winning script will be produced as an NBC pilot.
Mr. Greenblatt announced third-season pickups for “Family Business” and “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” Also, Showtime’s planned limited series of director Spike Lee’s “Sucker Free City” has been scaled back to air as a two-hour movie.
TLC’s latest makeover experiment will take on the restoration of entire towns. “Trading Spaces” designer Genevieve Gorder will travel the country making over small towns using a crew of designers, carpenters and craftspeople in “Town Haul.” The series has an initial six-episode run set to begin in early 2005.
Ms. Gorder will continue to appear on “Trading Spaces.”
TLC’s fellow Discovery network Animal Planet announced the signing of “The Sopranos” star Edie Falco to host a one-hour special, “Growing Up Black Leopard.”
College Sports Television announced new programming aimed at broadening its appeal beyond hard-core fans of traditional sports. The new programming includes “National Collegiate a Cappella Championship,” “Defeat the Beat: National Collegiate Band Championship” and “National Collegiate Dodgeball Championship.”