Classic nightly blend at Ion


NEW YORK -- Ion Media Networks on Thursday unveiled an expanding programming relationship with RHI Entertainment and provided a glimpse of its late-night strategy in a partnership that will merge classic and new commercials in an MTV-style hour.

For the former Pax Network, the programming deal with RHI, run by the famed Halmi father-son team, will bring up to 24 original movies and miniseries at a rate of two a month. It will be a steep expansion of the previously announced six a year.

"We think this is a great opportunity to put the TV movie back on television," said Robert Halmi Jr., president and CEO of RHI Entertainment.

First up is July's "Killer Wave," a miniseries. RHI is programming primetime Fridays-Sundays for Ion.

Ion also gave the audience at the Prince George Ballroom a quick look at Firebrand on Ion, a multiplatform play that programs in an MTV-style a blend of classic and current commercials that promises to link brands with interested viewers.

There wasn't a lot of detail provided by Ion Media Networks CEO Brandon Burgess and Firebrand co-founder John Lack, who said the project was two years in development and would premiere an hour a night at 11 p.m. on Ion.

But Lack said only quality commercials -- some shown on the trailer included the Jerry Seinfeld-Superman American Express spots and the BMW Films branded entertainment longforms -- would be in the mix.

Burgess said after the presentation that it would be edgier than the channel's mostly family fare that includes "Diagnosis Murder" plus such older shows as "Mama's Family," "Growing Pains" and "The Wonder Years."

It was the network's first upfront presentation in its history as Ion Media Networks and the first since its predecessor Pax held one with the former programming deal with NBC. It was a chance for Burgess and Ion to show off the progress they have made in turning around a network with wide distribution but little momentum when the wheels came off in 2004.

Burgess said their strategy involves original and acquired programming on the linear network plus digital channels Qubo (family-friendly programming) and a lifestyle channel using acquired content, plus a data-casting play that when implemented will use the digital stream to offer mobile programming.

Burgess declined comment on the status of the option period between Ion and two suitors, NBC Universal and Citadel Ltd. Partnership. He also declined comment on reports that Ion rejected a $2.1 billion bid from EchoStar Communications for the company. EchoStar also declined Thursday to confirm or deny the bid.

If TV Land had the real Bill Clinton at its upfront presentation, Ion brought out "Saturday Night Live" regular Darrell Hammond (and Clinton impersonator) as well as "Mama's Family" star Vicki Lawrence. Also at the presentation in nonstarring roles were RHI regulars Timothy Dalton and F. Murray Abraham plus Tracey Gold from "Growing Pains" and Bronson Pinchot from "Perfect Strangers."