Can A&E and Starz Use ‘Returned’ and Seth MacFarlane to Boost Ratings?

It's not just broadcasters looking to make a mark with new projects this time of the year; cable channels are also seeking out the next big thing for a spot on their new schedules. This week, A&E and Starz (NASDAQ: STRZA  ) each added a buzzy series-to-be. Will audiences tune in?

AMC brings The Returned to the States

Credit: Canal

A&E (a joint venture between Disney (NYSE: DIS  )  and Hearst) is known mostly for its reality series such as Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars. The network has also had success with scripted dramas such as Longmire and Bates Motel, though. However, as executives learned with Those Who Kill, finding a hit isn't as simple as finding the right cast. It's also vital to find the right hook. So what happens when that "hook" is similar to another rookie series with a following?

A&E has given the green light to The Returned, a new 10-episode drama being produced and co-written by Lost and Bates Motel producer Carlton Cuse. If that title sounds familiar, it's based on the French TV series Les Revenants (which is in turn based on a French movie) and revolves around a small town where the dead start coming back to life. Of course, that plot should also sound familiar because that's the same logline as ABC's Resurrection (which is based on the unrelated novel The Returned). Still confused? You're not alone.

Returned analysis
Usually, it is movies that end up mirroring each other (Deep Impact vs. Armageddon, Dante's Peak vs. Volcano, and similar matchups). It's less common to see TV shows copy each other. I get the reasoning behind A&E's move -- the French version is a success on Sundance (where it runs with subtitles) and Resurrection is doing well for ABC. Nobody's denying it's a hot genre for TV, but this could backfire for A&E.

Obviously, we should reserve judgment until we hear the direction the show intends to take and see footage. Still, you can see the risk. I give Cuse a lot of credit -- what he and Kerry Ehrin have done with the network's Bates Motel is awesome, and I have no doubt what he and his partner on the project, Raelle Tucker (True Blood), have in mind here is high quality also. This is going to take some convincing with the public, though, and that's not always easy. This would have been a much easier sell to viewers last year, but now... not so much.

Starz gets Blunt

Credit: Getty

Meanwhile, Starz continued its plans to amp up its star power this week with the addition of a new series from the minds of Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and Bored to Death's Jonathan Ames. The series, titled Blunt Talk, was given a two-season (20 total episodes) order with an eye on a 2015 debut.

Talk stars sci-fi icon Patrick Stewart as Walter Blunt, a British newscaster who tries to make his mark on American cable news. In the process, Blunt must contend with his network bosses, dysfunctional staff, and numerous ex-wives and children. He has to rely on his one true ally: his alcoholic butler who crossed the pond with him to the States.

Blunt analysis

Starz follows -- and helped create -- the now somewhat traditional model of guaranteeing a second season as a way to show viewers it's serious about the program. Netflix did a similar thing with House of Cards. In this age of streaming media making an original content push, it may soon become an industry standard to secure top-tier talent.

Blunt Talk also carries the pedigree of being from Media Rights Capital (coincidentally, the same studio behind Cards), which has aligned with MacFarlane on previous projects including big-screen hit Ted and the upcoming A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Over the past year, Starz has committed to drawing top-tier talent with bold names such as sci-fi producer Ron Moore, 50 Cent, and LeBron James among its new additions. Moore's Outlander and 50 Cent's Power launch this summer, while James' comedy Survivor's Remorse hits in the fall. It's vital for Starz to stay the course here, as rivals HBO and Showtime aren't backing down.

HBO has projects from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Tim Robbins, and Jack Black on the horizon. Showtime has been on a hot streak with original series Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex breaking through in a big way and primed for a summer return. The competition in the pay cable space is fierce, and Starz made a smart signing here. It could definitely help to tilt the scales a little more in its favor.

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