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DEAL OF THE WEEK: FX Ramps Up Cable’s Late-Night Comedy Battle: The jockeying for late-night viewers is heating up. FX is pushing into the space, first with Russell Brand‘s Strangely Uplifting (launching June 28) and then with comedians Chris Rock and W. Kamau Bell‘s untitled effort. The latter, produced by Rock and starring Bell, is set to bow with six episodes this summer. (Rock appeared in the project’s presentation pilot, and he’s likely to turn up occasionally.)
A late-night series can offer a face to help market cable networks as well as a topical (and hopefully DVR-proof) vehicle to lure viewers. “It’s new territory for us, but we think it totally fits within the comedy brand we’ve created,” says FX executive vp original programming Nick Grad. And while many nets have dabbled in late-night in the past — remember VH1’s short-lived Zach Galifianakis‘ Late World With Zach in 2002? — they now have the foundation to be more aggressive.
In fact, Grad does not cite David Letterman or Jay Leno as models, but rather his desire to replicate the success of Comedy Central’s late-night programming. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert keep the network in the zeitgeist and have averaged 1.6 million and 1.2 million nightly viewers this year, respectively, according to Nielsen data culled by Horizon Media. E! too has given femme-focused networks something to envy — and mimic. Its nightly dose of Chelsea Handler provides the network with an identity and stable viewership (720,000 a night this year).
The late-night audience is not limitless, of course. TBS made a pricey play in 2010 to lure NBC castoff Conan O’Brien, but while the comedian has elevated the net’s comedy brand (TBS is no longer simply the “Tyler Perry network”), his show has generated fewer than 1 million viewers on average this year.
Still, the value proposition is there. Bravo recently expanded its Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen to five nights a week, and USA made good on its promise for a timely special with host Krista Smith. VH1 has turned to former Singled Out host Jenny McCarthy for its most recent foray into late-night talk, announcing a day-and-date series tentatively slated to premiere this summer. Says Grad, “Once you have a base and a brand as a network, I think [late-night] is a natural progression.” — Lacey Rose
Letterman in Line to Top Carson Record
CBS’ late-night renewals ensure that David Letterman, 64, and Craig Ferguson, 49, will remain at the network through at least 2014. Ferguson (WME, Gang Tyre) will move his 12:35 a.m. show to a larger stage at CBS’ Television City, and the network will co-produce his Late Late Show with Letterman’s Worldwide Pants. The latter solely produces Letterman’s Late Show, a financial boon for the host who at one point earned an estimated $32 million a year. The news comes mere weeks after Letterman (CAA, Jackoway Tyerman) celebrated his 30th year in late-night (he’s been with CBS since 1993), and he’s now poised to surpass Johnny Carson as the genre’s longest-running host. Sources say there is no mention in the deal of a swan song for the comedian. This season, Letterman is averaging 3.3 million viewers and a 0.9 rating in the 18-to-49 demo; Ferguson garners 1.6 million viewers and a 0.5. — Lacey Rose
Basic Instinct Scribe Wants Grey Deal
Joe Eszterhas has Fifty Shades of Grey envy. The $5 million sale of the steamy romance books to Universal and Focus on March 26 has prompted the screenwriter behind 1990s erotic hits Basic Instinct and Sliver to re-introduce his latest project to Hollywood studios. Eszterhas first pitched Lust — which centers on a female digital-media executive who has an affair on a business trip — late last year. He was in the midst of a rewrite when Grey began raising Hollywood’s temperature, so producer Scott Steindorff is now taking a re-structured script out to buyers, hoping to capitalize on the buzz. The rewrite changes the setting and, more importantly, strengthens the female perspective. “For a long time, movies in this genre were told from the man’s point of view,” says Steindorff. “People are discovering that it’s the woman’s perspective that’s driving the popularity of everything from Fifty Shades of Grey to Hunger Games.” – Borys Kit
Ben Affleck (WME, Ziffren Brittenham) is attached to star in Nathan Decker, a Warner Bros. political comedy written by Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love). Affleck replaces Tom Cruise, who had been associated with the project.
Will Ferrell (CAA, Mosaic, Jackoway Tyerman) will star opposite Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in Anchorman 2, a sequel to the 2004 comedy. Adam McKay will direct and co-write with Ferrell for Paramount.
Ashton Kutcher (CAA, Untitled, Sloane Offer) is attached to star as Steve Jobs in Jobs, an independent biopic being produced and financed by Five Star Institute. Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote) is directing.
Christopher Meloni (Gersh, Industry) will star in Small Time, the feature debut of 24 and The Kennedys producer Joel Surnow. Bridget Moynahan (WME, Brillstein) will co-star in the indie drama.
Chuck MacLean (CAA, Oasis, Hansen Jacobson) will write Storming Las Vegas, a crime thriller set up at Summit. Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) is attached to direct and is producing with Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
Happy Madison, the production banner run by Adam Sandler and Jack Giarraputo, is in negotiations to produce Paramount’s planned remake of the 1987 Carl Reiner comedy Summer School.
Entourage creator Doug Ellin (CAA, Ziffren Brittenham) will do a script polish on Grudge Match, Warner Bros.’ boxing comedy that Pete Segal is attached to direct.
Oliver Cooper (CAA), one of the three stars of Project X, is in negotiations to join Grown Ups 2, Columbia’s sequel to its 2010 ensemble comedy.
Gina Prince-Bythewood (CAA, Del Shaw Moonves) is in negotiations to direct Before I Fall, Fox 2000’s adaptation of the best-selling book by Lauren Oliver. Jon Shestack (Dan in Real Life) is producing the drama.
Sony has picked up The Royal Honour Society, a literary-themed action-adventure pitch from Ernest Lupinacci (CAA, Del Shaw Moonves). Joe Roth and Palak Patel are attached to produce, and Lupinacci will exec produce.
Universal is developing a sequel to its 1988 hit comedy Twins. Titled Triplets, it would reunite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito and add Eddie Murphy to the lineup.
Anchor Bay Films has picked up the rights to Mac & Devin Go to High School, a comedy featuring hip-hop maestros Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa.
Hammer Films, Alliance Films and Cross Creek Pictures are teaming with novelist Susan Hill and screenwriter Jon Croker (Desert Dancer) for a sequel to 2012’s The Woman in Black, which starred Daniel Radcliffe.
Ken Loach will direct Spirit of ’45, a feature-length documentary from the U.K.’s Film4 about a new socialism that emerged in the U.K. as World War II came to an end.
Bruno Wu‘s Seven Stars Film Studios has partnered with financier-producer Jake Eberts (Gandhi, Dances With Wolves) to form Allied Productions East. The joint venture’s first project will be Mission Boys, written by Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson.
Josh Brolin (CAA, Ziffren Brittenham) will narrate Untamed Americas, a four-hour miniseries that explores wildlife spectacles in North, Central and South America, for National Geographic.
Neil Patrick Harris (Paradigm, Booh Schut, Bloom Hergott) will host and produce the June 10 Tony Awards on CBS, his third stint as host.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse director David Slade (WME, Anonymous Content) will helm and executive produce the pilot for NBC’s Bryan Fuller drama Hannibal, based on the Hannibal Lecter character.
Rosario Dawson (CAA, Untitled, Bloom Hergott) and The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Anne Hurd are teaming to bring the actress’ graphic novel, O.C.T., to A&E. The drama, which is in development, would explore the NYPD’s Occult Crimes Taskforce and star Dawson.
Whoopi Goldberg (WME) has booked a multiepisode arc on Fox’s Glee, playing a professor who oversees auditions for a New York drama school. Lindsay Lohan (ICM, Untitled, Bloom Hergott) is in negotiations to guest star as herself and play a celebrity judge at Nationals.
The Hunger Games‘ Elizabeth Banks (UTA, Untitled, Ziffren Brittenham) will return to NBC’s 30 Rock, playing Alec Baldwin’s journalist wife, who was detained in North Korea and forced to marry the nation’s dictator.
Dances With Wolves actor Graham Greene (Jordan & Associates) has joined Syfy’s upcoming drama series Defiance, playing the most powerful man among survivors of an apocalyptic war.
British actress Laura Haddock (Independent Talent Group) will co-star opposite Tom Riley in Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons, a historical fantasy drama revolving around the artist, inventor, dreamer and idealist. She’ll play da Vinci’s lover.
Star Trek‘s Ben Cross (Vanguard) will play a gangster in Cinemax’s Alan Ball drama series Banshee.
Former CSI co-star Conor O’Farrell (SDB Partners) will reprise his role as undersheriff Jeffrey McKeen on the CBS series’ May 9 season finale.
Tori Spelling (UTA, Jackoway Tyerman) will host and executive produce TLC’s upcoming 10-episode unscripted series Craft Wars.
The Hangover‘s Rachael Harris (UTA, Principato Young) will guest star as an attorney in an episode of USA Network’s sophomore drama Suits.
Fox has ordered the dating series Take Me Out, based on a British program, from FremantleMedia (American Idol, The X Factor). The hourlong series bows June 7.
Fox has renewed Bones for an eighth season. … Cartoon Network has ordered a Nick Cannon sketch comedy series and a spinoff from the DreamWorks feature How to Train Your Dragon.
A company headed by BET founder Robert Johnson has agreed to acquire Image Entertainment and Acorn Media Group to create the publicly traded RLJ Entertainment, which will distribute digital and video content globally.
Miramax has reached a deal to oversee worldwide licensing for the library of Samuel Goldwyn films across a range of TV and digital platforms.
Marvel Comics writer Brian Michael Bendis (Circle of Confusion, Katz Golden) has signed with Random House to write his first book, Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Graphic Novels, to be published in 2013.
Greg Smith, who quit Goldman Sachs via a scathing article in The New York Times in March, has scored a $1.5 million deal from Grand Central Books to write a memoir about life as an investment banker.
Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito (Domain Talent, Thruline, Principal) will star in John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church, the last in the Church and State trilogy of plays that began with Doubt. He’ll play a Bronx borough president forced to confront a local minister.
Smash star Megan Hilty (Gersh, One Entertainment), who also has appeared in such Broadway shows as Wicked and 9 to 5, has signed with Columbia Records through Sony subsidiary Masterworks.
THE BIG NUMBER: $60 Million: Digital ad sales by CBS and Turner from the NCAA Tournament, nearly double the $32 million from March Madness in 2009, according to Ad Age.
Aretha Franklin, the Grammy-winning singer with 20No. 1 Billboard R&B singles, has signed with ICM.
Comic Carol Leifer, who wrote on Seinfeld and was the basis for the Elaine character, has signed with APA.
Kenny Smith Jr., showrunner and executive producer of BET’s The Game, has signed with management outfit New Wave Entertainment.
Writer-producer Judith McCreary, a co-executive producer on Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds and CSI, has signed with UTA.
Craig Bierko, who appears in The Three Stooges, has signed with ICM.
NEXT BIG THING: Ryan Engle
Reps: Original Artists, Mosaic
Why He Matters: A rare exec turned screenwriter, Engle worked at Kopelson Entertainment before penning the Black List script On a Clear Day and on March 30 winning the job to write New Line’s Rampage, based on the 1980s video game.
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