Turning Up the Heat at the Critics Tour

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Summer started out hot for cable in June, when it grabbed a 55 share of viewers. That ratio increased to nearly 59 in July as broadcasters endured a major retreat.

And during presentations at the recent Television Critics Association press tour here, cable programmers gave every intention of putting even more hot shows on to boil in August and everything after, talking up a wide array of series, telefilms and specials aimed at bringing even more viewers to the medium.

GSN said it has ordered second seasons of its Extreme Dodgeball and Celebrity Blackjack series. The former Game Show Network will also look to tap the billiards arena with a new show.

Network officials said 40 celebrities will compete for $1 million in prize money to be donated to charity in the second round of Blackjack. Its initial season concludes Aug. 9 at 10 p.m.

As for Extreme Dodgeball, GSN and production officials will be scouting for teams and individuals from dodgeball leagues in five markets come November, prior to the start of its sophomore season slated for a January premiere. The current campaign’s championship will air Aug. 3 at 10 p.m.

GSN also said it has entered into an agreement with SokoLobl Entertainment to develop Ultimate Pool Challenge, a nine-ball pool tournament series featuring top pool sharks who will participate in a winner-take-all tournament of “No-Limit Pool.”

At Lifetime Television’s presentation, executives told pundits that the female-targeted network would increase its output of original content by 50% next year, noting that upcoming films are attracting name talent including Emmy Award nominee Mary Louise Parker, Mariska Hargitay and Debra Winger.

Lifetime is currently in production on an original film, starring Kimberly Williams-Paisley (According to Jim) and Annabella Sciorra (The Sopranos) called Identity Theft: The Michelle Brown Story, and will use this film to educate viewers on better ways to protect their vital information.

Other upcoming programming includes a special on TV’s Greatest Sidekicks, hosted by Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall of Laverne & Shirley; a reunion special featuring the cast of The Nanny sitcom, with Fran Drescher; and a version of How Clean Is Your House? from England’s Channel 4, featuring host Kim Woodburn.

In the premium sector, Home Box Office said that a fifth, 10-episode season of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is slated to begin this January in Los Angeles, and that it had renewed a second season of the Entourage comedy series, which premiered on July 18.

“I personally believe [Entourage is] going to be the next big comedy for HBO,” said chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht.

Critics were dismayed when Albrecht confirmed that it would be at least early 2006 before new episodes of mob series The Sopranos would arrive. “It’s like the next Harry Potter book. You’ll have to wait for it and be grateful,” he said.

The cable portion of the TCA concluded a three-week orgy of press conferences by television networks, which generated its share of headlines over whether Fox had been pirating reality-show ideas, charges that were denied by executives with News Corp.’s broadcast entry.

Next up were the cable networks, many of which had duplicative concepts, but declined to enter into similar squabbles. Nearly identical series on families that work together as bounty hunters are due for A&E Network (Dog the Bounty Hunter on Aug. 31) and HBO (Family Bonds on Sept. 19).

TLC (Body Work) and E! Entertainment (Dr. 90210) trumpeted plastic-surgery shows. And TBS will have a reality version of Gilligan’s Island while VH1 goes In Search of the Partridge Family.

Among the other buzzworthy developments/announcements at TCA:

  • BBC America is importing the talk show-improv comedy The Kumars at No. 42, which will be seen in its original form. Fox failed in its attempts to Americanize the concept by changing the title family to Hispanics and dubbing it The Ortegas.
  • Cartoon Network will premiere Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken’s Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends on Aug. 13 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Court TV’s Hip Hop Justice will explore the issue of “cultural profiling,” according to producer Russell Simmons, which leads to law enforcement agencies to label hip-hop and rap performers as criminals.
  • College Sports Television said it will broaden its programming with shows focused on other areas of campus competition, such as debating, a cappella singing and karaoke championships.
  • Discovery Channel’s Virtual History will examine the actions of the world’s four greatest leaders on July 20, 1944. On that date, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a mild stroke; Winston Churchill mulled using poison gas against the Germans; Adolph Hitler faced an assassination attempt; and Josef Stalin planned the Russian Army’s march through Europe. The special utilizes live actors, their faces replaced by computer-generated graphic masks of the leaders and their dialogue created from archival documents.
  • ESPN is continuing its foray into original movie production with Hustle, the Pete Rose story starring Tom Sizemore, in September; and a Dale Earnhardt biopic in December, starring Barry Pepper.
  • National Geographic Channel execs said the net’s fall programming lineup will be its biggest yet, featuring such series as Interpol Investigates, Expeditions to the Edge, MegaStructures, Naked Science and Air Emergency. Specials will include The Diva Mummy on the world’s best preserved body, and Tycoon Toys.
  • Sundance Channel executives said the network was sending crews to the Democratic National Convention last week in Boston shooting footage for Tanner on Tanner, a sequel to Robert Altman’s HBO series on a fictional presidential candidate, Tanner ’88. The new series will begin Oct. 5.
  • TLC is extending the make-over craze to mom-and-pop shops in Taking Care of Business, scheduled for October.
  • Trio will launch its first original series, Pilot Season, an improvisational comedy with Sarah Silverman and director-star Sam Seder on Sept. 6.
  • USA Network and Sci Fi president Bonnie Hammer apologized to critics about the latter’s recent “documentary” that was revealed to be a hoax designed to create a conversation about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, which bowed in theaters last weekend.

In October, USA will offer an updated take on Frankenstein starring Adam Golbeg and Parker Posey. It turns the monster into the good guy and its creator into the madman. Executives hinted it could be expanded into a series format.

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