Pasadena, Calif. -- Special presidential-election coverage,
those ubiquitous game shows, a cavalcade of original movies and series and The Sopranos
shared the spotlight during cable's pitches to television critics last week.
From Tuesday through Friday, cable programmers did
dog-and-pony shows about their upcoming program offerings at the Television Critics
Association winter tour here.
Home Box Office was able to use the tour as a platform to
tout the ratings for the second-season debut of The Sopranos.
But during a panel on its new network, SoapNet, Disney/ABC
Cable Networks had to concede that the 24-hour soap-opera channel would launch with only 1
million homes today (Jan. 24).
On a broader note, with cable being a landscape of targeted
niche services, the TCA sessions revealed that a number of networks will put their own
spins on two rather traditional types of programming: election coverage and game shows.
Comedy Central, for example, made headlines with its
announcement that it had signed up former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) as a guest political
commentator for its "Indecision 2000" election coverage. Dole will join The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart'snews team to contribute to its upcoming
Nickelodeon, Lifetime Television and MTV: Music Television
are also among the non-news services with election programming or campaigns in the works
targeted toward their respective audiences.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appeared via satellite for
MTV's TCA session. And E! Entertainment Television's Joan and Melissa Rivers
will cover the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention as
"fashion-party" delegates, querying candidates about their fashion choices.
Like the broadcast networks, cable networks have embraced
the game-show craze. Lifetime's Who Knows You Best? is slated to premiere in
June. Nick is bringing back Double Dare as Double Dare 2000.VH1 will
debut Pop-Up Quiz Jan. 29. And Comedy Central's primetime game show, Don't
Forget Your Toothbrush, kicks off the week of June 19.
"It's worth noting here that we were in
development with this show in early '98, long before the recent game-show tsunami
that's hit the airwaves," Comedy Central head of development Debbie Liebling
told the TV writers.
Even Animal Planet has a game show, You Lie Like a Dog,
debuting Jan. 31. "We unfortunately will not be giving away $1 million, but I can
guarantee that our animals are a lot cuter than Regis [Philbin], Chuck Woolery or Dick
Clark," Animal Planet general manager Clark Bunting told the TV critics.
It was evident at the tour how many more cable networks are
expanding their original-programming efforts. Now not only HBO and Turner Network
Television can tout their made-for-TV movies, but networks such as A&E Network, MTV
and VH1 are also producing telepics. And a large array of networks are doing original
series, including Bravo and Odyssey, A Henson & Hallmark Entertainment Network.
There was some star power at the TCA winter session this
year, with Sharon Stone, Anne Heche, Ellen DeGeneres, Paul Sorvino and Latin singing
sensation Marc Anthony fielding questions from the assembled TV writers. And when the cast
of The Sopranos arrived, the huge ballroom at The Ritz-Carlton, Huntington where
that session took place was packed.
Some less conventional attractions also got attention. A
crowd of TV critics clamored to get psychic readings from medium John Edward, who is
slated to do a daily talk show for Sci Fi Channel called Crossing Over with John Edward.
And writers were able to get warm and fuzzy with several
Discovery Networks U.S. channels. They had the opportunity to touch hair from a
20,000-year-old woolly mammoth, the topic of a two-hour Discovery Channel special, Raising
the Mammoth,which will debut March 12.
Animal Planet brought in Kavic, the dog that plays Buck in Call
of the Wild, the network's first original primetime fictional series. The crowd
loved petting the husky.
HBO was able to reveal that the Jan. 16 season premiere of The
Sopranos did a 16.2 rating, or 22 share, in the network's universe. According to
HBO, that's the highest rating for an original on the premium service since 1996,
when If the Walls Could Talk scored a bigger number.
At the Disney/ABC Cable session Thursday, president Anne
Sweeney said SoapNet will launch with 1 million homes, scattered across the country. She
added that the network has deals with some small and midsized cable operators, but she
declined to identify them.
But during the 10 days when Disney has aired an 800-number
spot for SoapNet, it has gotten 13,000 phone calls from viewers who are interested in
getting the service. Those messages are being routed to local cable operators and
direct-broadcast satellite companies.
Sweeney didn't find the launch number small or
disappointing. When asked whether 1 million subscribers constituted one of the smallest
cable-network rollouts in recent years, she said, "No, I don't think it is. I
think the environment has changed dramatically, even in the last 12 months, in the cable
universe, and I actually think that's a good launch number today."
By the end of this year, she expects SoapNet to be in 4
million to 5 million homes. More homes, from DirecTV Inc., kick in during the second
As for the writers' reactions to the cable portion of
the TCA tour, USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco said HBO has really pulled away
from the rest of the cable pack with shows such as The Sopranos.
"HBO has placed themselves at another level," he
said, adding that it is now on the No. 1 tier, with services such as TNT and Showtime
being second-tier and the third tier made up of channels like VH1 and A&E.
Still, HBO and cable remain far outdistanced by broadcast,
Bianco said, adding, "As fabulous as it is, 13 hours of The Sopranos won't
get you through a year."
Manuel Mendoza, TV writer for TheDallas Morning
News, pointed out that just hours after E! presented Joan Rivers, Bravo was touting
its new series with filmmaker Errol Morris in the same room.
Mendoza also credited cable for its program offerings that
depict minority groups. "Cable has recognized that programs about African Americans,
Latinos and other minorities can appeal to not just those groups," he added.
HBO has a six-part miniseries about the inner-city drug
culture in Baltimore, The Corner, slated to debut April 16. And Showtimegave
critics a peek at Resurrection Blvd.,a series about a Mexican-American