Nets Counter Olympics with Originals, Specials

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U.S. figure skating queen Michelle Kwan and her U.S. Winter Olympic team counterparts haven't stopped a number of basic-cable networks from providing attractive counter-programming alternatives to NBC's two-week ratings-rich and female-skewed Games coverage.

In past years, basic-cable networks often shelved original movie and series premieres during both the Summer and Winter Olympics, which typically generate high TV-viewership numbers. NBC, CNBC and MSNBC will air live and taped Olympics action from Feb. 8 through Feb. 24.

This year, the games fall in February — a sweeps month in which broadcasters roll out their best programming — so few would question the cable industry's desire not to compete head-to-head with over-the-air networks.

But networks like A&E, The History Channel, TBS Superstation and even Cartoon Network are rolling out new series and specials in an effort to reach viewers either uninterested in the Olympics, or those who eventually grow tired of the Games.

History will offer a potpourri of entertainment, military-oriented and "Black History Month" fare directly against the Olympics. On Feb 8 — when NBC will present the opening ceremonies — the network will bow Whassup Up In Advertising: America's Favorite Television Commercials, a one-hour special that takes a look at the history of TV spots, said History senior vice president of programming Charles Maday.

The network will also bow Valley Forge
— this year's first installment in the network's "Save Our History" series — on Feb. 18, and A Fragile Freedom: African American Historic Sites, which looks at African-American monuments and museums around the country, on Feb. 13.

Given NBC's heavy female bent for the Olympics and the country's migration toward more traditional fare, Maday believes that such programming can find an audience.

"We're in a period where people are looking for traditional things, but it will be difficult to counterprogram the Olympics because most people will most likely tune into some portion of the games," he said.

Even female-skewing networks like Lifetime Television and A&E will attempt to draw viewers away from the Olympics with originals. Lifetime isn't premiering any original movies or series against the Games, but senior vice president of research Tim Brooks said the network would air new episodes from its popular troika of Sunday-night series —The Division, Strong Medicine
and Any Day Now.

'Special' Response

The network will also air several specials the week of Feb. 17 in association with "Stop the Violence Against Women" month.

"I think it would be foolish to premiere something against the Olympics, but if we stick to our regular programming, viewers will continue to flip to Lifetime and we'll do very well," Brooks said.

A&E's Biography
will feature several prominent men during the Olympics, including famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran and mobster Bugsy Siegel, said network senior vice president of programming Allen Sabinson. To further attract male viewers, the network on Feb. 10 will premiere Inside the Playboy Mansion, an intimate look at the famed residence of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

Given the competition it faces from both broadcast and cable networks, Sabinson said the network can't afford to cede any period.

"As we've reached a certain subscriber threshold, we can't take any period off because of strong competition from the Super Bowl or the Olympics," he said. "We have to show up every night."

As some networks rev up a number of original programs and specials, other networks have planned programming stunts to help draw audiences. TBS Superstation — in an effort to lure male viewers in pigskin withdrawal, as the National Football League has ended its season — will premiere the box office hit Wild, Wild West
Feb. 10. It's part of a full day of action films, said network executives.

Along with
Wild, Wild, West, which will run four more times against Olympics coverage, other movies in the marathon include: Cliffhanger, Above The Law, Murder At 1600
and Money Talks.

For its part, Cartoon Network will air 24-hour marathons of the classic Hanna-Barbera animated series Scooby's All-Star Laff-A-Lympics
each Friday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m., said the network. The 1970s series features more than 45 favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters competing in a wide variety of sporting events.

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