TNT knows A-list drama

Big names in front of and behind camera highlight ambitious schedule

On hand to pitch his new TNT cop drama "Dark Blue" to media buyers Wednesday, Dylan McDermott posed a hypothetical question that could prove the underlying theme of the 2009 upfront.

"How long can you pretend to be something before you become it?" McDermott asked onstage at the Turner upfront presentation. While he was referring to his character, a two-fisted undercover cop, the actor might as well have been talking about his new home network.

TNT has spent the past few years trying to erase the distinction between broadcast and cable television. To hammer home the point that it functions as a sixth broadcast network, the cabler scheduled its upfront in the heart of the broadcast upfront week and packed it with A-list talent.

TNT unveiled a drama slate that includes projects from Steven Spielberg, Steven Bochco, "Roseanne" creator Matt Williams and the husband-and-wife team of Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.

TNT has ordered a pilot for an untitled alien invasion project — from DreamWorks TV and executive producers Spielberg, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank and Robert Rodat — that is set six months after a worldwide alien invasion. "Saving Private Ryan" writer Rodat is penning the pilot based on an idea he conceived with Spielberg.

Bochco and Stephen Godchaux are developing "Class Action," about a down-on-his-luck attorney fighting for the disenfranchised. Bacon and Sedgwick are developing a story about a small border town and its newly elected sheriff under the working title "Zapata, Texas."

Also on the network's development slate are an untitled family drama from Williams; an untitled Daniel Pyne noir drama set in 1954 Los Angeles; "Macalister," about a washed-up novelist-turned-professor; "Proof," about an eccentric neuroscientist helping the government solve cases; and "Pastor Jazz," which stars Charles S. Dutton as a pastor with a passion for music and hails from the "Sopranos" duo of Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green.

On the unscripted side, the network is developing "The Mayo Clinic," set at the famous hospital, and the wish-fulfillment series "Trip of a Lifetime."

At the presentation, TNT also unspooled launch plans for new series from such broadcast mainstays as Jerry Bruckheimer, Ray Romano, John Masius and Mark Burnett.

Beginning in the summer, TNT will program Monday-Wednesday with original series, making good on a promise entertainment president Steve Koonin made last year.

"We've got more primetime drama than three of the broadcast nets," Koonin said. "We're not abandoning 10 o'clock."

Still, TNT faces an uphill battle for ad dollars and the respect of its broadcast competitors.

Broadcast nets account for 40% of primetime viewership, but they command 70% of the ad dollars.

At the Fox upfront presentation, entertainment chairman Peter Rice took a jab at TNT's top series.

" 'The Closer' delivers 6.8 million viewers every week," he said. "That's a great number, but if it was a broadcast show, there are 75 broadcast shows that deliver more viewers than that."

But TNT is sticking to its guns with plans to launch eight original series in the next several months, including four freshmen: the Bruckheimer-produced "Blue"; Masius' "Hawthorne," starring Jada Pinkett Smith; Romano's "Men of Certain Age"; and Burnett's unscripted "Wedding Day."

Appearing onstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, Romano said that for his first project after "Everybody Loves Raymond" he wanted to make sure that "I made about 95% less money." In meeting that request, "TNT went above and beyond," he quipped.

Joined by co-stars Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula, Romano played his role as pitchman to perfection, drawing hearty laughs from an audience of buyers already a bit worn down by the rigors of upfront week.

Romano described his parents' mixed reaction to his first nonbroadcast series. "My mother was really excited," he said. "My father was all, 'Well, I guess now we gotta get cable.' "

TBS stars taking the stage included Tyler Perry, Bill Engvall and George Lopez, set to debut his late-night show "Lopez Tonight" in November. Lopez joked that TBS has big trust to give a Mexican a show at the height of the swine flu epidemic.

The comedy net is drawing up "Neighbors From Hell," a half-hour animated strip about a demonic suburban family from Fox TV Animation and DreamWorks Animation.

Also in development: "The Game of Life," from James and his "King of Queens" cohorts Rock Reuben and Jeff Sussman; Second City TV sketch-comedy series "Wee Hours"; and "Big Tow," from "The Drew Carey Show" exec producer Clay Graham.

Mediaweek senior editor Anthony Crupi reported from New York; Nellie Andreeva reported from Los Angeles.