Original movies about mutant snakes that terrorize a
California town and a heroic Secret Service agent who rescues the president's daughter
from the clutches of the bad guys.
Offbeat comedy series, including one starring all chimps,
all the time.
Top creative talent, headlined by writer/director John
Carpenter and actors Mariel Hemingway and Harry Hamlin.
If that sounds to you like the programming mix for one of
those new digital-driven services -- maybe Sundance Channel meets Animal Planet --
surprise: It's actually the bold new thrust of TBS Superstation.
The most widely viewed basic-cable network, one of the
industry's most venerable franchises, has gone in for a mini-makeover and emerged with an
interesting new face. To be sure, TBS still depends heavily on its traditional fare of
recycled broadcast series, sports and theatrical films. But the venture into original
entertainment programming is winning kudos from cable operators and media buyers alike.
Viewers will get a chance to sample the new look this
month, when TBS premieres both The Chimp Channel (June 10), the original series
that features primates portraying the personnel of (what else?) a television network; and Silent
Predators (June 13), the made-for-TBS, rattlesnakes-with-an-attitude flick starring L.A.
Law'sHamlin, Shannon Sturges and Jack Scalia. Silent Predators was
co-written by Halloween trickster Carpenter.
The concept of an emphasis on original entertainment
programming dawned as early as mid-1997, said Jim Head, senior vice president of original
programming for TBS, when the network began to wonder if its documentaries provided the
right match for its viewers.
"Documentary programming has always been a tough fit
for the network because we're an entertainment service," Head said.
"Strategically, we wanted to create an original-programming franchise that supported
out identity, so we decided to shift documentary programming over to CNN [Cable News
Network] and to create original programming that fits the personality of our
Head added, "In this crowded television environment,
it's so important to brand your network -- to have a clear identity. What we love about
original programming is that it's malleable. You can truly fashion it in your own
LICENSE VS. OWN
In those early deliberations, TBS reached a key decision to
license its original programming rather than to own it. This meant that Head and his
colleagues needed to make the rounds of producers and agents and to present the reinvented
TBS almost as if it were a new network.
The outreach was successful, as TBS signed production or
distribution deals with such companies as Columbia TriStar Television; Warner Bros.
Domestic Pay-TV, Cable and Network Features; Avenue Pictures; Telescopic Pictures; and
"We had to go to the creative community and introduce
ourselves and our network to get the directive out as to what we were looking for,"
Head said. "But licensing our movies enabled us to get started more quickly with a
He continued, "It's also made us a very attractive
customer. There's such a trend toward [network] ownership [of shows] now that it's given
us access to a lot of material. Many producers are very anxious to be in business with us.
We want to be in business with the very best, and that's exactly who is courting us. Down
the road, sure, we'd like to pursue an ownership scenario."
Fatal Error, the first of four original films planned
for this year, starred Robert Wagner, Antonio Sabato Jr. and Janine Turner and premiered
If there were any lingering doubts about the future of
original entertainment programming at TBS, the performance of Fatal Error -- with
its timely story line of a computer virus turned killer -- dispelled them.
According to Head, the premiere scored a 3.4 rating, up a
hefty 26 percent over the already strong first-quarter average rating of 2.7 for primetime
Sunday. Fatal Error was the most heavily viewed original movie on basic cable in
Early indications are that Chimp Channel could do
just as well, since it's an outgrowth of the acclaimed "Monkey-ed Movies" series
of interstitial bits that TBS originated.
In Monkey-ed Movies, costumed chimps parodied signature
scenes from popular movies. Chimp Channel builds on that in 30-minute episodes that
follow the antics of the chimps as they run their network.
It's a format that enables co-creator and co-writer Tim
Burns (An American Werewolf in Paris, Freaked, The Jim Henson Hour)
to work on a number of different levels, layering parodies of moguls and movies atop the
physical antics of the chimps.
"The comedy works on so many different levels,"
Head said. "First, it's funny to see the chimps in costume. Second, they're
physically funny. Next, the scripts are cleverly written. Then you mix in the element of
the parodies. It's lightning in a bottle."
Chimp Channel's major characters are obnoxious
talk-show host Murray Price, hunk Brock Hammond, witchy superstar Marina, wide-eyed intern
Timmy Briar and network president Harry Waller.
They all work for an occasionally seen dictatorial station
owner whose accent sounds suspiciously Australian, although Burns claimed that any
similarity to a human media magnate is purely coincidental.
"Rupert who?" Burns deadpanned. "It's just
an eccentric Australian billionaire."
Burns and company use a group of six chimps and two
orangutans as the primary primates -- some play dual roles -- supplementing them with
another three or four chimps who appear in smaller parts.
While a 30-minute episode with human actors may take one
day to shoot, that arithmetic doesn't seem to work with primates, which follow intense,
30- to 45-minute bursts of work with programmed breaks.
A single episode may take five or six days to complete --
longer if the script involves food. A chimp named Chubbs taught the crew that lesson when
he prematurely attacked a cheese wiener while portraying fast-food king Dicky McDoinkle.
"Whatever the joke is, it's sort of stimulating to
them the first five or six times through," Burns said. "After that, they're
going to go off and do something else. We let the tape run all day. You never know when
you're going to get a shot you can use. If you want a certain look -- a lip curl -- that
could happen between takes."
He added, "It's all really bizarre. Every day I go to
work realizing I'm writing for hairy simians. I can't quite believe this is my job. It's
days when you're watching a monkey stick out its tongue in a one-eyed snake-head costume
that you feel good about going to university. You know your parents have spent their money
How Chimp Channel will be received is anybody's
guess. But the early reviews for the superstation's original movies are positive.
IN THE RATINGS
Jerry McKenna, vice president of strategic marketing at MSO
Cable One, is exploring ways of featuring the new TBS programming thrusts in acquisition
"Our best measurement of customer satisfaction is
Nielsen [Media Research] ratings," McKenna said. "TBS' ratings have held up very
nicely. Their mix of new series and sports, specifically the NBA [National Basketball
Association], seems to be working for them."
Added Patty McCaskill, vice president of programming and
pay-per-view for MSO Charter Communications, "New and original programming that
enhances the product is something we're in favor of, as long as it's good-quality and a
differentiator for the network."
Advertisers, too, will support the new programming,
predicted Ellen Oppenheim, media director for agency Foote, Cone & Belding-New York,
due to the greater consistency it brings to TBS' programming mix.
"Let's talk about why they're doing it,"
Oppenheim said. "With increased channels, consumers need a clear understanding of
what a network or station stands for. If a viewer is flipping through channels, the more
instant recognition you have, the more likely your network is to be in the 'considered
set' the viewer flips through."
She added, "They're trying to give TBS a distinct
identity, although I don't think they'll give up sports. It's not a unique position, but
it is a more consistent position relative to where they've been. There's a second seeming
advantage here. With the proliferation of news channels, they're giving CNN [documentary
programming] that might help to distinguish it."
Buoyed by that reception, TBS will air two more original
films in 1999, and it has given the green light to three movies for 2000.
Appearing later this year will be First Daughter (Aug.
15), in which Hemingway tracks the chief executive's kidnapped kid; and The
Timeshifters (October), with Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers) and Catherine
Bell (JAG), about journalists who travel through time to avert imminent
Tentatively set for 2000 are:
Con Road, from a script by Matt Dorff about a
Texas convict who hijacks a prisoner-transport bus;
Sinkhole, written by Brian Ross, in which a
massive sinkhole threatens to swallow the city of New Orleans during Mardi Gras; and
Home, from Blatt/Danielson Productions, a
contemporary Western about the reunion of a young man and his bank-robber father.
The lineup for 2000 may change as production progresses,
but Head predicted few surprises.
"If you look at these titles," he said, "you
get a clear sense of what we're trying to achieve with this franchise: action-adventure,
thrillers, disasters, courtroom dramas, contemporary Westerns -- all genres appealing to
our viewers, all male-oriented but female-friendly."
Head continued, "Advertisers love big event
programming where you can deliver desirable viewers in large numbers. Our movies are
advertiser-friendly. These are not movies that advertisers will have issues with."
On the series front, TBS recently captured Columbia
TriStar's The New Ripley's Believe It or Not in a spirited bidding war with
broadcast networks -- this on the heels of the superstation's record $180 million
acquisition of Seinfeld reruns.
The 22 one-hour episodes of Ripley's bow in January
2000, with a celebrity host to be announced. Head declined to disclose the price for the
series -- or for any of the superstation's original programming -- but he said TBS is in
it for the long haul.
"[Ripley's] is a show that was heavily coveted
by the broadcast networks," Head said. "We stepped up to the plate, competed
with them toe-to-toe and got the show. That's very illustrative of the changing TV
landscape. We're investing what it takes to look great."