Sex is back and hotter than ever! The cover line of the June 14 issue of TV Guide was one of those lines designed to quicken pulses, shock a few blue hairs at the checkout line and (oh, yes) sell a few extra magazines. But everyone who glanced at the cover — or at least everyone who hadn’t spent the prior weeks tucked under a rock — suspected that sex hadn’t gone anywhere. It is a measure of the new power of summer cable programming — which is, in fact, hotter than ever — that everyone knew this was all about a little show called Sex and the City. And everyone — save those on an archeological dig in Tanzania — also now knows what it means to be punk’d. And who Ashton Kutcher is (and who he’s dating). And that Tony Shalhoub is TV’s big-star-of-the-moment. And why Spike TV remains The New TNN. Those who are really paying attention know Gary’s a rat and Doggie Fizzle Televizzle isn’t about a doggie at all. Dazed and confused? Who wouldn’t be? This is summertime on cable. Yet one fact has suddenly emerged as cable enters what has become its own prime season. This business has begun to dominate pop culture as never before. It rules the magazine covers, the water cooler and the buzz — that virtually indefinable and admittedly insubstantial chatter between humans that can essentially be reduced to one basic statement: You must watch this show simply because…you must. Sex, Punk’d and Monk are just three buzz hits among many. So why the big buzz in cableland, and what other cable phenoms can we expect as July and August roll to fall? First, the prime reason behind the prime-time bonanza: Some 35 cable networks, which will have launched a record 90 new shows between the first of June and the end of August, are battling an immovable and suddenly rejuvenated force — network television. The Big Four have long proclaimed summer as a vital testing ground for new product, but this is the only summer where they’ve collectively mounted the semblance of a genuine assault. ABC, CBS and — especially — Fox and NBC, are actually borrowing from cable’s playbook: launch new product (in their case, most of it reality-based) in the summer, because people don’t actually stop watching TV when it’s warm outside. Also, cable networks — just about all of them — boosted overall viewership last summer about 9% (according to a CAB study) so just to keep pace with that spike, the entire business has to pop more shows in the hope that one or two will actually pull in some audience. That’s lent a manic quality to this summer season, and — if you happen to be a viewer — confusion as well. There may be more, much more, but where to turn? I’ll catch the premiere of Nip/Tuck on FX July 22, but I still haven’t caught up with Game Show Network’s Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned, which may be the net’s only program ever to join the buzz circuit. For cable networks, this wild season of launches, premieres, rollouts and one-offs poses its own problems. There may be more shows out there, but the churn rate’s expected to be higher than ever too. Some of the major networks, most notably ABC Family, Fine Living, E! and Style, appear to be embracing MTV’s model. To wit, launch many shows in the hope that one rockets to success. This has worked well for MTV, with its mix of franchises (Road Rules) and single-season-one-hit-wonders (The Osbournes). Surf Girls (launched in May) might have flatlined, but Punk’d certainly hasn’t. Still, one has to wonder whether this model will work for E!, with a dozen launches in the works. And will all of this noise drown out the fact that ESPN2 is finally launching its first morning show on Oct. 1, Cold Pizza? I surely hope not. There’s so much coming down the pike. But for those on a tight schedule, here’s the extended haiku version of cable’s big binge. Foremost, original series will get most of the press attention, and some even appear to be very good. A&E’s MI-5, the English-accented spy thriller, looks terrific. But Showtime and FX have cable’s big guns of summer. FX’s Nip/Tuck, the satire on Miami plastic surgeons (July 22), wants to draw some buzz back to the channel that seems to have dissipated during The Shield‘s second season. Showtime’s Dead Like Me, the dark, high-concept, drama about a dead girl and her friend, launched just last week. All eyes, as always, are directed to HBO. The big fall series launches are Carnivale (traveling carnival) and K Street (Washington politics). Neither has a set airdate yet but must hold down Sundays while subscribers wait until the March ’04 Sopranos premiere. Lifetime will launch two series on Aug. 2, both starring high-profile stars. The first is 1-800 Missing, with ER evacuee Gloria Reuben as an FBI agent who enlists a psychic to help her solve cases; and Wild Card, with Joely Fisher as a blackjack dealer who goes home to take care of her sister’s business after her death in a car accident. Two other series of note: USA’s Peacemakers, with Tom Berenger in a rare western (think C.S.I. meets Gunsmoke), launches July 30; ESPN’s Playmakers, about guys on a pro football team and their families, airs Aug. 26. This is ESPN’s first original series. And, lest we forget, the big returning series: USA’s The Dead Zone (this Sunday) and Showtime’s Street Time (Aug. 6). There will be a blizzard of made-fors during the hot months, most courtesy of TNT. Caesar aired last week, but coming in October is Wilder Days. This one stars Peter Falk as a granddad who relates stories to his grandson about the circus boat he once worked on; it’s another Johnson & Johnson Spotlight presentation. J&J also produced Door to Door, maybe TNT’s most distinguished made-for ever. Prince Charming airs in late July, but for my money, the most interesting TNT movies air this fall, including Bad Apple, with Chris Noth as an FBI agent, and the remake of Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. TBS’s Red Water, with Lou Diamond Phillips (Aug. 17), about a couple terrorized by sharks, looks good too. A&E’s Hornblower and the Hotspur airs in December. The Mayor of Casterbridge, based on the Thomas Hardy novel, airs Aug. 17. But herewith the movie that will get endless press, endless accolades: And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, with Antonio Banderas, about D.W. Griffith’s filming of a battle fought by the famed Mexican revolutionary. HBO hasn’t announced an airdate, but mid-September’s a good bet. And, Angels in America, the Mike Nichols-directed six-hour epic play about gay life in America. No airdate, but this will definitely air over two nights in December. The HBO original Undefeated, with John Leguizamo, airs July 26. Next, we’ve got reality, and cable is introducing any number of unusual wrinkles on the (by now) well-established form. Let’s start with the new top 100 craze. Both E! and VH1 have cornered this new format. VH1 has 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders: Viewers’ Choice (Sept.1) and the five-hour special 100 Greatest Sexy Moments in Pop Culture (week of Dec. 15), while both E! and VH1 have jumped on the shocking moments in celebritydom format: VH1’s 100 Shocking Moments in Pop Culture (Nov. 11), and E!’s 101 Shocking Moments (no airdate yet). E! is going crazy on (what else?) celebs. We’ve got behind-the-scenes shows on Hollywood wives, entertainment editors and celebrity feuds. But E! will also exploit the other hot new trend in reality: makeovers. The one of note is Star Struck, about ordinary people who become stars. Bravo’s got Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (July 15), in which gay guys make over straight guys (to help them get straight girls…go figure). Lifetime’s makeover take is Head 2 Toe (July 26), while Style has a home makeover show (Clean House, July), and TLC has Date Patrol (Sept. 20), a date makeover show. There’s more. ABC Family is remaking Dance Fever (July 13) and following Melissa Joan Hart (Tying the Knot) during a six-week reality mini devoted to her wedding, part of a subgenre within a subgenre: the celeb wedding reality series. On MTV’s Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica (Aug. 4), viewers will be treated to the spectacle of Nick Lachey (98 Degrees) and Jessica Simpson enjoying connubial bliss. Speaking of spoofs, Comedy Central’s Reno 911 (July 23) goofs on reality cop shows. Animal Planet will not spoof vets, at least intentionally, with Beverly Hills Vet (Sept. 2). Another subgenre: the professional reality show. Court TV jumps on C.S.I.‘s bandwagon with Las Vegas CSU (Aug. 28); Food Network goes inside the restaurant biz with Into the Fire (July 11). Lest we forget the high-end reality front, there is History Channel, which premieres two programs of note: Tactical to Practical (Sept. 9), about common products that had their roots in military history; and Come Home Alive (Sept. 6), about attacks on Americans overseas. TDC’s Shark Week (Aug. 10) will add a new and particularly unusual element: a robotic shark, with camera eyes. The big series of fall (Sept. 21) is Living With Tigers, in which captive tiger cubs are released into the wild. You still with us? Good, because there’s more. For ratings punch, my money’s on TLC’s Trading Spaces: Family, launching July 6. Trading Spaces on Campus (Aug. 9) is another good bet. Finally, the kiddies. Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack: Code of the Samurai kicks off July 28, but I, for one, will await Duck Dodgers (Aug. 23), with Daffy Duck as a superhero and Porky Pig as his helper. On Nick, there’s My Life as a Teenage Robot (Aug.1), about a tenderhearted robot, and Are You All That? (July 26), the search for America’s funniest kid. Then there is the November debut of All Grown Up, Nick’s Rugrats spin-off. Plus: Romeo!, the live-action series starring Master P (September, on Snick), and Rubbadubbers, the new preschool Nick Jr. series (August). So strap yourselves in front of the set, or head to the beach. My recommendation: the beach. Cable’s tsunami of programming will be there when you get back.

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