It's not exactly news that three big Hollywood studios -- MGM, Lionsgate and Viacom (which owns Paramount) -- are planning a new premium movie channel to compete with HBO and Showtime. But the channel seems less of a daydream now that it's got a name: Epix. The studios applied for a trademark for the name earlier this month and say the channel will be on the air in fall 2009. Epix doesn't have any deals yet with cable or satellite-TV companies, but it's already got a lock on some movies: this summer's comic-book-hero blockbuster Iron Man, the new Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie and the forthcoming Pink Panther 2 will all make their television debut on Epix.
All week long the Miami Herald has been running stories about how to do stuff cheap, and Friday's piece is about stuff you can do at home this weekend that's inexpensive and relatively legal. Here's my little chunk on television:
Ha! Admit it! You saw that headline about cheap TV and thought this was a story about hot-wiring your cable box. Sorry, but we're holding that one for a special Felonious Weekend edition later this year.
But even if we can't suggest any legal ways to make your television cheaper, we've got some ideas about how to get more out of it: Check out those little-watched channels with numbers like 8,702 -- they're full of odd and entertaining (if not necessarily good) programming that offers a break from all those CSI and Law & Order episodes.
• The Fox Reality Channel airs mainly reruns of old reality shows. Most of these are merely stupid and trashy, but from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, you can see a marathon of My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, possibly the worst series in the history of broadcast television. In this 2004 show, a young and pretty Phoenix schoolteacher tries to give her parents strokes by pretending to marry a loathsome, slobby pig. How often do you get to see a genuine portent of the end of Western civilization?
• The exercise channel FitTV screens something called Namaste Yoga at least half a dozen times a day. Not only do you get to watch clinically insane people contort their bodies into triple-pretzels (and hope they might not be able to untwist!), but there are also explanations of words like yuj and namaste and pranayama that possibly we wouldn't even print in the Miami Herald if we knew what they really meant.
• NASA Television airs live footage of space missions when they're afoot, and reruns of old ones when the skies are dark. Watch hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars turn into space junk in the blink of an eye as random, tiny asteroids crash into brand-new satellites! See the invention of Tang! Try to guess if the moon landings were really faked!
• Don't listen to Dr. Spock and his pruneface, killjoy disciples -- you're never too young to start watching TV. BabyFirstTV is programmed specifically for infants. Prop them in front of the set at 7:30 p.m. Saturday for Art & Music, dedicated to "exploring the world of the arts through dance, music, movement and more." After they're all freaked out by Twyla Tharp and Thelonious Monk, tune in the 11 p.m. Nighttime Programs for Baby -- soothing music and shifting, colorful shapes, basically the stuff they'll seek through the use of illegal substances once they become teenagers.
• Speaking of illegal substances, was that really just spinach in those cans that Popeye used to toss back? Watch for clues in the 5 a.m. Sunday screening of an original episode on the classic-cartoon channel Boomerang. Later risers can catch a 15-hour Flintstones marathon that starts at 8 a.m.
• Q. What makes the perfect Sunday brunch? A. Croissants, mimosas and the Military Channel's 8 a.m. documentary show Futureweapons. This week's episode, Maximum Impact, is about "weapons that annihilate en masse." Go ahead, have two mimosas.
• GSN, which used to be called the Game Show Network, has reruns of old game shows all weekend long: Family Feud, Match Game, Let's Make A Deal, What's My Line, Russian Roulette. That last one, I should warn you, isn't quite as exciting as it sounds.
• For the adult version of Nighttime Programs for Baby, tune into the Golf Channel any time, day or night. All golf, all the time, guaranteed to produce restful sleep within minutes.
Eurocinema, America's only pay-per-view channel devoted exclusively to foreign film, will expand its reach by several million homes this week. Starting Aug. 1, Eurocinema will be available on Direct TV's on-demand platform. If you've got a relatively recent-generation Direct TV DVR, you'll be able to pick from 4,000 Eurocinema movies, few of them available elsewhere. They'll include the German Summer '04 with Martina Gadek (The Lives Of Others), the French Le Petit Lieutenant with Nathalie Baye (Catch Me If You Can), and the Iranian Under The Moonlight, which won the Critics Week Award at Cannes.
When Sebastian Perioche arrived at Harvard to start work on his M.B.A. 12 years ago, he was shocked. Everybody in Paris had told him Boston was one of America's most cosmopolitan cities, but he could hardly find a theater screening the films of Claude Chabrol, Pedro Almódovar or any of the other European directors he liked so much.
"I used to always say to everybody, ‘With all these cable channels, there ought to be one where you could watch foreign film,' '' he recalls. "And they would say, ‘What a great idea!' '' Such a great idea that Perioche finally tried it himself. And now his video-on-demand brainchild Eurocinema is in 20 million homes and adding half a million more every month -- and doing it by defying practically all conventional wisdom about the tastes and habits of American television viewers.
The channel, headquartered in a Brickell Avenue high-rise, offers no movies in English, no movies that have won Oscars -- in fact, just about no movies that anybody in the United States has even heard of. In a day when everything in television is built around marketing, this seemingly perverse thirst for obscurity is nonetheless paying off. Read my full story from Sunday's Miami Herald.
When I talked to David Carradine last week while working on a story about how older TV stars are doing startlingly well right now despite working in a medium that's obsessed with finding younger viewers, he admitted the paradox has crossed his mind. He thought about it a great deal on the set of The Golden Boys, a film scheduled for release in the next few weeks in which the 71-year-old Carradine plays a romantic lead opposite Mariel Hemingway.
"I wonder, ‘Where's the appeal of this,' '' Carradine told me. "But it's been showed a couple of places now and it had a huge audience response. Somebody explained to me that the Baby Boomers are getting old, and they'd like to see a movie about themselves. They aren't that interested in seeing a movie about kids trying to get a date. The idea of a movie about an older man falling in love and getting married appeals to them."
That's fine in movies, where producers are simply trying to lure in anyone with the price of a ticket, as opposed to TV, where they have to please demographics-obsessed advertisers. But Carradine doesn't have any trouble getting TV roles, either. His latest, that of a martial-arts-trained zen master (does that ring any bells?), airs Wednesday night on the new Hallmark Movie Channel: Son Of The Dragon.
"It's a dream of a character," says Carradine. "I had not actually read the script when I said I was interested in doing it. They said ‘It's based on The Thief Of Baghdad and [chuckle] I knew what that was. I didn't think there was any hopes of me playing the Doug Fairbanks part, but it just sounded like the greatest idea."
Carradine plays a soldier who comes out of a peaceful retirement to stage a grand jewel theft that involves a series of cons and deceptions. Because he's playing a character playing a character, he deliberately hams it up, which Carradine says was a lot of fun.
"I get to overact, because I'm supposed to be acting, and that's something nobody has ever accused me of," he says. "Part of my mystique is I try never to let you catch me acting. That's what the critics always say, anyway -- that I'm reserved and quiet and holding back. To a certain extent, it's true, but they say it whether I'm playing an Oklahoma folksinger [Woody Guthrie in Bound For Glory] or the guy who started the Civil War [plantation owner Justin LaMotte in North And South] or a Chinese-American martial arts monk."
That monk, Kwai Chang Caine, is the role that most resonates with Carradine's name. He was the lead character in Kung Fu, the smash hit ABC martial-arts Western that aired from 1972 to 1975. Carradine has revisited the character or his clones countless times in TV sequels, movies and most recently in a series of phonebook commercials.
The character's eternal fascination to audiences, Carradine thinks, is linked to the fact that the show went out on top. The decline that led to its cancellation was not in Nielsen ratings but in Carradine's interest.
"To be honest, I didn't know when I was doing the show that it was so popular," he recalls. "I was so busy -- I was working an enormous number of hours, living in a little cabin on a hill with no TV set, no newspaper or magazines. I didn't know the show was popular -- I hardly knew anything about anything at the time. In the final season, I guess, it was pointed out to me that we had been running in the top four Nielsen shows since the first episode.
"But I left anyway. I walked. I had had always intended to do Kung Fu for three years. They used to say that you do a TV show for one season, there's kind of a stigma attached -- you failed. You do it two years, you're a success. Three years, a hit. Four, you're rich; five, you own the studio. I thought to myself, a hungry fighter's a good fighter. I don't need to get rich; I don't need to play the same character for years. I want to do movies."
Warner Brothers, the studio that produced Kung Fu, and ABC, with aired it, made it easier for Carradine to leave by quarreling with him constantly.
"The network was using us as cannon fodder, placing Kung Fu before any show they wanted to push -- a show that was in trouble, a new show, whatever," he says. "They weren't treating it with the respect it deserved. So I called a meeting in my dressing room and told everybody, ‘Let's throw in the towel.' They did a nice job of wrapping it up -- he finds his long-lost brother and the story is over."
Carradine was determined to leave Kwai Chang Caine behind that he deliberately chose a karmic opposite for his character: the murderous, gladiatorial race-car driver Frankenstein in the cult flick Death Race 2000. "It didn't work," he laughs. "There is nothing I can do to wipe that guy out."
So Liz Claman wasn't kidnapped by space aliens after all, unless Roger Ailes has some tentacles we don't know about. Claman, who mysteriously vanished from her anchor desk on CNBC's top-rated Morning Call this summer, popped up on the Fox Business Network Thursday afternoon. She'll be coanchoring (with David Asman) the FBN afternoon slot on weekdays from 2 to 5 p.m.
New television channels usually launch with a blizzard of sneak peeks at their programming, but barely 24 hours before the Fox Business Network goes on the air, we don't know much more about it than the name. And even that, says Fox boss Roger Ailes, is too much.
''CNBC's got 90 million homes compared to our 30 million,'' he says of the entrenched rival whose turf he's invading. ``They've got a 17-year head start, they've got GE and Microsoft, they've got Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal and a two-year warning that we're coming. They know the time and date we're going to hit the beach. We've got to hold a little something back.''
If war metaphors sprinkle Ailes' speech -- he also compares the network's launch to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, not exactly a felicitous metaphor -- it's because the decision to go after CNBC head-on is television's most audacious confrontation since Fox News took on CNN a decade ago. The Fox Business Network goes on the air at 5 a.m. Monday. Read the rest of the story from Sunday's Miami Herald.
Fox Business Network (5 a.m. Monday) -- A new cable channel with 24-hour business news coverage launches this week.
Samantha Who? (9:30 p.m. Monday, ABC) -- Christina Applegate returns to television as Samantha Newly, an accident victim awaking from a coma who discovers that in pre-amnesiac life she was cheating on her boyfriend, a member of AA, and generally a total rhymes-with-witch. It may not sound like it, but this is a comedy -- a tartly funny one, about the getting the chance to hit the "replay'' button on your life.
Frontline: Cheney's Law (10 p.m. Tuesday, WPBT-PBS 2) -- Michael Kirk, who's been following the Bush administration's war policies and their collision with domestic civil liberties for Frontline since 9/11 (this is his 10th documentary), takes a look at Vice President Dick Cheney's attempt to get control of the Justice Department office that sets legal guidelines for the White House's power to detain, interrogate, torture, wiretap and spy in the war on terror.
Viva Laughlin (10 p.m. Thursday, CBS) -- In this bizarre murder mystery ripped off from the BBC -- will they never forget about that damn tea? -- Nevada casino owners and their henchmen murder, rape, loot and generally run amok while occasionally breaking into song. Yes, it really is as weird as it sounds.
Miami: Reflections on the River (10 p.m. Thursday, WPBT-PBS 2) -- Seven short videos by University of Miami film students are bound together in a half-hour documentary on the history, life and culture of the river. Nobody breaks into song.
The Next Great American Band (8 p.m. Friday, Fox) -- No Simon, no Paula, no Randy, but probably multiple Sanjayas -- it's an American Idol for bands, with a whole new loopy and/or vicious cast of judges, led by an Australian brute named Ian "Dicko'' Dickson. If nothing else, it's a valuable reminder that the Brits (them again!) emptied the populations of their prisons into Australia.
Freaks (9:15 p.m. Friday, Turner Classic Movies) -- Not often seen on television, this 1932 Tod Browning film tells the story of circus sideshow freaks who band together against a beautiful but cruel trapeze artist. No special effects or prosthetics here; Browning searched the back tents of carnivals across America to find his cast. Banned in Britain and severely censored in America during its original release, Freaks is airing as part of a four-movie Browning minimarathon that includes Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil Doll (1936), London After Midnight (1927), The Unknown (1927) and Simon Cowell's Home Movies. (Made that one up.) (But I gave you the willies, didn't I?)
My Aug. 20 post titled How far has MyNetworkTV fallen? has mobilized a small army of the network's folks to besiege me with anguished (though unfailingly polite) phone calls. They are particularly unhappy that I characterized their upcoming NFL Network: Total Access show as clip show that's "really just an hour-long prime-time infomercial for a cable channel."
While not denying that Total Access will contain segments from other NFL Network programs, they insist it will include original material and is a preview and analysis of the weekend's pro football games, not a sales pitch for the subscriber-challenged NFL Network. Anybody who loves football, they say, will love the show. Hmmm. I guess we'll see when the show kicks off on Sept. 8 at 9 p.m.
Still trying to emerge from the rubble of its failed attempt to entice Americans to watch an all-telenovela network, MyNetworkTV for the past several months has been a ragtag collection of reality shows and trash sports. Now it's going to air a program that's essentially a collection of previews and teases of a wildly under-subscribed cable network. On Sept. 8, MyNetworkTV debuts something called NFL Network: Total Access, an hour-long collection of clips from the NFL Network, the football league's channel that's faced stiff resistance from cable operators. It's really just an hour-long prime-time informercial for a cable channel.
MyNetworkTV was born to fill the desperate need for programming by all the broadcast stations left in the lurch when UPN and The WB merged last year. But it's hard for me to imagine they're going to stick with this kind of thing for long.