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Cable hits on replay

The networks are finding it pays to share the buzz by hitching a summer series to a blockbuster movie's coattails.

June 13, 2004|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

TV viewers will get the chance over the next few weeks to explore the eating habits of medieval Brits, watch a team of little people clad in jockey outfits hurling dodgeballs at sumo wrestlers, see contestants eating wolf entrails, and witness a "Rocky" wannabe getting pummeled in a Philadelphia boxing ring.

It may sound like typical reality fare but these days, the inspiration for an increasing number of television shows is the movies.

Continually on the prowl for pop culture hooks, cable networks this summer believe that the best way to ensure success for their reality-based programs is with an assist from Hollywood-style fantasy.

Latching onto the familiar is nothing new for TV, which has functioned like a cathode ray echo chamber almost since its inception, when Fred Allen famously quipped "Imitation is the sincerest form of television." Anything emanating even the whiff of a hit inevitably spawns knockoffs. But as competition continues to multiply, cable networks hungry for programming have begun tapping a new vein of material by piggybacking their shows with marketing efforts devoted to event feature films. For example:

* GSN (formerly the Gameshow Network and now positioning itself as the Network for Games) is launching "Extreme Dodgeball" at 10 p.m. Tuesday, just three days before Fox releases the Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn comedy "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story."

* The History Channel airs a two-hour documentary "The Quest for King Arthur" next Sunday, timed to the July 7 opening of Touchstone's big-budget epic "King Arthur."

* The Sci-Fi Channel is capitalizing on the attention devoted to Fox's "The Day After Tomorrow" with its own natural disaster movie, "Post Impact," starring Dean Cain, which encores at 7 p.m. Thursday.

* Two new reality-based series ("Scream Play" at 8 tonight on E! and "Into Character" premiering at 7 p.m. Wednesday on AMC) prove that cable networks aren't just hitching their wagons to current films. Both shows allow ordinary film fans to take on challenges inspired by scenes from classic pictures such as "Rocky," "The Karate Kid," "The Natural," "Dirty Dancing," "La Bamba," "Dances With Wolves" and "The Mummy."

"Scream Play" creator Joel Klein, formerly a supervising producer on NBC's hit "Fear Factor," thinks that movie references will layer his show's thrills and chills with at least some measure of emotional context.

"There's a stunt we're going to do tomorrow that comes from 'Dances With Wolves,' " he says. "It's the scene right after the buffalo kill when they pull out one of the organs and eat it. Well, that's how we're going to do the organ eating, because it's based on the fact that it actually took place in the movie."

By injecting iconic movie elements into the stunt game mold, Klein believes "Scream Play" will fit comfortably within E! network's showbiz-centric brand. "You can't just put someone in a coffin and cover them with cockroaches without some reason. So this way, we do it by showing a clip of 'The Mummy,' and people can be like, 'Oh, that's why it's on E!' "

"Into Character" has less of a "Fear Factor" feel but rather seems to emulate BBC America and TLC's "Faking It," an unscripted series that offers average folks a chance to become someone quite different, at least for a brief moment. So an episode of "Into Character" will send a fan of "Bring It On" to a cheerleading camp in Florida, which sounds similar to a "Faking It" episode that featured a bookish Harvard grad student who learned how to be an NFL cheerleader.

The new show's creator and executive producer, Riaz Patel, insists his show evolved independently from those earlier ones. And besides, he insists, "I think the payoff is a little richer here because when you have the beer-guzzling guy on 'Faking It' who wants to be a sommelier, the stakes are fairly high for him. But when you have two people trying to pull off the lifts of Baby and Johnny from 'Dirty Dancing,' then you've got millions of people who know what it feels like to want to do that too, so I think the resonance is much deeper."

TV programmers have long scanned the pop culture horizon for buzz-worthy events. Anniversaries, holidays, celebrity deaths and, every four years, the Olympics -- all serve as timely pegs on which to hang programming. But when it comes to focusing mass awareness on previously neglected topics, few phenomena can match the publicity generated by movie marketing campaigns.

Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, recently set the average marketing budget for a Hollywood movie at just under $40 million, and executives like GSN President Rich Cronin know just how much public awareness that can buy. "I'm sure Fox is spending a fortune marketing their 'Dodgeball' movie. We're spending several million marketing our summer lineup, which includes 'Dodgeball.' So I think we help each other by just getting it out there: See the movie, watch the TV series, live the dodgeball lifestyle."

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