Cable Nets Spin Reality, Sitcoms

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PASADENA, CALIF.-Comedy Central soon will debut an anti-sitcom sitcom about President Bush from the creators of South Park
-a comedy with abortion- and execution-themed episodes.

Also this spring, USA Network will air Eco-Challenge Borneo, a reality show in which team members who fully cooperate with each other-rather than try to stab one another in the back-have the best shot of winning a brutal 320-mile adventure-race competition. Eco-Challenge
is the antithesis of Survivor, yet was created by the same man, producer Mark Burnett.

"Survivor
is a TV show," Burnett said. "I like making TV.but Eco
is my love. It will never have the ratings, obviously, of Survivor. It's totally different.

"One's a contrived TV show, and one is pure reality, because nothing is contrived about Eco-Challenge," he added.

Once again, basic cable is zigging as broadcast zags. Cable this year will put its own spin on genres that have become the tired staples of broadcast: sitcoms and reality programming.

That was one of the threads that ran through last week's four-day cable portion of the Television Critics Association winter tour, where networks ranging from the broad general-entertainment behemoths to services such as E! Entertainment Television unveiled their ever-expanding plans for new original series and telepics.

Unlike past years, only one Turner Broadcasting System Inc. network-Turner Network Television-made a presentation. Turner has been evaluating the extent of its future participation in the TCA tour, sources said.

There were no blockbuster announcements at the event, and talk of the threatened strike by writers and actors-which dominated the broadcast networks'sessions-wasn't the major refrain, although the issue did come up.

A representative of the Writers Guild of America did address the assembled TV writers to talk about the looming strike, and how the residuals and "vertical integration" issues relate to cable. Some cable-network sources said they held back on releasing any big news so they will have some stockpiled projects to talk about at this summer's TCA, in case there is a strike.

The most surprising moment last week was probably comedian Andy Dick's performance at MTV: Music Television's session. Dick, who is doing a new cutting-edge comedy series for MTV, popped out of a huge birthday cake and ran down the aisle clad in only a thong. But his antics barely raised an eyebrow from the jaded TV critics.

Some of those writers talked about making a list of cable's new anti-sitcom sitcoms. In addition to Comedy Central, MTV, VH1 and TNN: The National Network all have unusual comedies with odd twists headed for their lineups.

"People are tired of the format and are trying to do something new," said Tom

Walter, TV critic for The Commercial Appeal
of Memphis.

Dave Walker, TV critic for the
The Times-Picayune
of New Orleans, was already predicting that Comedy Central's That's My Bush!, from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, would cause "a firestorm."

Described as "live-action sitcom satire," That's My Bush!
will depict how Bush's family life will be affected by his duties in the Oval Office. It is being cast now and debuts in March.

Parker denied that
That's My Bush!
will skewer the president in the way Saturday Night Live
does. And the South Park
pair said the series wouldn't be topical.

NOT A SATIRE

"This show is not a political show," Parker said. "This is a show that satirizes the American sitcom..We had been wanting, actually, for several years, to do a sitcom that sort of ripped on sitcoms, because we hate them so much. We just said we should use a family-let's just make it the first family, and it doesn't really matter."

He added: "The whole point of a sitcom is taking a character and forcing you to love that character, which is like Everybody Loves Raymond..So what we are going to do is make everyone love George Bush."

The series looks like it might rival South Park
in terms of controversy. In one episode, the president will be required to attend an execution on the same weekend his college "frat buddies" show up and want to stay at the White House.

The first episode of That's My Bush!
is about abortion, according to Parker.

"That basically has to do with the head of the Pro-Life Movement, who was aborted as a baby and never really developed, and it's basically this little thing like this that runs around," he told the TV writers.

Comedy Central has two other quirky shows coming this September. Martin Short, in a parody of a wacky fawning celebrity interviewer, will star in Primetime Glick. It's a hilarious spoof of talk shows in which Short, as host Jiminy Glick, will interview real-life celebrities.

While Walker and Walter both liked Primetime Glick, they questioned whether it will be "too hip for the room"-or too inside Hollywood for most viewers.

Comedy Central even has Bill Murray and his three brothers in the series Comedy Central Sports Presents the Sweet Spot.

"That's all the Murray brothers together in a scripted comedy set on a golf course, but featuring the reality of golf itself," Comedy Central general manager Bill Hilary said.

The TV writers heard from several cable networks that are repositioning themselves, including WE: Women's Entertainment [formerly Romance Classics], TNN: The National Network and USA.

USA unveiled a development slate whose centerpiece is the USA Mystery Wheel. USA has signed up best-selling mystery writers David Baldacci, Ken Follet and Robert Parker to create original movie concepts based on original characters, according to Jim Miller, USA's executive vice president of original programming.

Other USA series in development include: Thoughtcrimes, about a telepath; Mob Wives, from author-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi; DaylightRobbery, about housewives who stage holdups during the day; and the special Street Justice, in which former Hell's Angel head Chuck Zito mediates disputes and metes out his own brand of justice.

Burnett also appeared at USA's session to talk about Eco-Challenge, which moved from Discovery Channel, where it had aired for four years. It will air in April over four nights.

At USA, Burnett said he was able to edit Eco-Challenge
like an unscripted drama, rather than as a pure documentary-Discovery's required approach.

"For me, it's much better television," he said. "I like dramatic storytelling."

Should a strike happen, cable would be the big winner, the TV critics predicted.

They said cable is "strike proof" since much of the fare on networks such as The History Channel and A&E Network is nonfiction. But some issues up for negotiation relate directly to cable, according to Michael Mahern, secretary-treasurer for the WGA West, who addressed the critics.

Reformulation

The writers'residual formula for cable dates back to 1980, when management said: "Cable TV is small and weak right now. Don't impose a residual structure on it that's so onerous that it can't grow," Mahern told the TV writers. As a result, writers receive 2 percent of the license fees for films and series sold to cable networks.

Now cable networks are very valuable, but are still paying the low residuals, Mahern said. He added that another major issue is "vertical integration and self-dealing."

For example, 20th Century Fox and Fox Television Studios produce hit series such as Ally McBeal
and The X-Files
that wind up sold to a Fox-owned cable network such as FX, he said.

"If the writer is getting a residual that is 2 percent of the license fee, who can determine what the license fee is when things aren't sold on the open market and they're sold by one arm of the company to another arm of the company?" Mahern asked.

FX couldn't be reached for comment.

Mahern-who estimated that the increases his union, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild are seeking would cost $740 million over three years-predicted there's a 50-50 chance a strike will be averted. He said top management at the broadcast networks have now become involved in the negotiations and have a big vested interest in reaching a settlement.

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