TV Upfront

Spike Offers Scripted Drama and Nielsen-Bashing at Upfront Presentation

Investment Comes as Network Looks to Broaden Its Appeal

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'King Tut' will run this summer.
'King Tut' will run this summer.

Viacom's Spike TV is going all-in on scripted series development, lining up a slate of five big-budget dramas and miniseries designed to lift the network's profile while expanding its overall reach in 2016 and beyond.

As part of Spike's New York upfront presentation, Exec VP-Original Series Sharon Levy on Tuesday afternoon gave media buyers their first look at some of the scripted projects that are currently in development. Among these are: "Emergency Broadcast," an apocalyptic alien-invasion thriller from Legendary Pictures' CEO Thomas Tull and "World War Z" author Max Brooks; "Red Mars," a space-exploration serial based on the Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy of 1990s sci-fi novels; and "The War at the Shore," an event series from Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti's Trigger Street Productions ("House of Cards") chronicling Donald Trump and Steve Wynn's war for the soul of Atlantic City.

Also in the works is "Deep Web," a drama about the Internet's shadowy Silk Road bazaar, where anonymous users could secure everything from illegal narcotics to murder-for-hire, and the miniseries "The Crusaders."

While none of the scripted projects have been ordered to pilot, Spike president Kevin Kay told Ad Age that he hoped to green-light at least one show "within the next couple of months." Mr. Kay added that he plans on picking up two new scripted projects per year starting in 2016.

Of the series currently in development at Spike, none has had a more tortured route to the screen than "Red Mars." After James Cameron passed on the option to direct a five-part miniseries, Gale Ann Hurd ("The Walking Dead") had a similar project in mind for Syfy. A third proposed execution, for AMC, also failed to launch.

Of course, there are no guarantees in scripted television, and earlier efforts to develop dramas in the wake of Spike's 2007 heist caper "The Kill Point" have come to naught. Two years ago, Spike unveiled a slate of five event series that never saw the light of day.

For all that, Mr. Kay is confident that Spike has a winner on its hands. For one thing, the network's upcoming three-part epic, "Tut," should help kick up the dust when it arrives this summer. A layer cake of swords-and-sandals adventure, palace intrigue and Eighteenth Dynasty hanky-panky, "Tut" stars Ben Kingsley, Sibylla Deen ("Tyrant") and Avan Jogia ("Victorious"). As Mr. Kay acknowledged, the soapier elements of the storyline are in there to attract an even greater cohort of women to a network that was once 66% male.

'Lip Sync Battle'
As all the pricey scripted stuff begins to take shape, Spike in the near term looks to draw a crowd with a much more understated effort. Based on a Jimmy Fallon gag that went viral, "Lip Sync Battle" pits the likes of Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt against one another in a delirious, pop-drunk competition that perhaps may best be described as "Mr. Ed tackles Karaoke night." Hosted by LL Cool J, "Battle" will also feature performances by Anna Kendrick, John Legend and Malin Akerman.

"Battle" bows Thursday, April 2. Spike on Tuesday announced it has extended the original series order, adding another eight episodes to the stockpile of 10 shows it already has in the can. The new episodes are currently being filmed in Los Angeles.

Because Spike hasn't hosted an official upfront presentation in a number of years, the network loaded up on the requisite guest appearances. (Crissy Teigen! The Rock! John Krasinski!) But it was voluble, volcanic "Bar Rescue" star Jon Taffer and his high-decibel dressing down of Nielsen who drew the most enthusiastic response from buyers.

Beefing about Nielsen's apparent inability to measure mobile and tablet impressions, Mr. Taffer groused about "the geniuses who measure audiences," theorizing that the equipment with which Nielsen gathers its viewership data "was bought at a Radio Shack." Wrapping up his invective, Mr. Taffer threatened Nielsen with a variation on his "Bar Rescue" catch phrase, howling, "Get it right or I'm going to shut it the hell down!"

After the show, Jeff Lucas, head of sales for Viacom's music and entertainment unit, said that Spike had begun selling against intel generated by its in-house data suite. Mr. Lucas added that the protracted delay in the launch of an accredited mobile TV ratings sample has effectively necessitated making some guarantees against data not generated or processed by Nielsen.

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