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The Cable Guy

By bankrolling Sidney Lumet's return to television, A&E is importing the Miramax method to basic cable -- top talent at bargain prices.

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It took a TV executive to rouse the napping career of Sidney Lumet, and to do it on the cheap. Lumet, New York's social-realism auteur emeritus of Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City, hasn't had the best of luck at the box office lately (anyone see Sharon Stone's Gloria?). But it's not for lack of trying: The 76-year-old director recently developed a TV pilot for NBC, a gritty legal drama called 100 Centre Street -- which the network promptly discarded.

Enter Allen Sabinson, a former programming chief at Showtime and TNT who moved to New York four years ago to become president of Miramax's film division. His dalliance with the Weinsteins lasted only seven months, and he won't talk about why it ended. Since then, Sabinson has been at A&E, slowly converting the commercial-break-addled Biography outpost into something bigger and, in its low-budget guidelines and high-prestige quotient, more Miramax-like. First came the British co-production Horatio Hornblower, then original movies like Dash and Lilly and the upcoming Great Gatsby starring Mira Sorvino -- and now 100 Centre Street, which premieres January 15. It's all part of a plan to make A&E a destination for original adult programming at bargain-basement prices. "New York is a great place to make independent film, but the series that are produced here are much more expensive than what we want to do," Sabinson says. "We are trying to reinvent the game to make it work for us."

Playing the Harvey role, Sabinson found a way to get Lumet at a discount -- and make technological history. 100 Centre Street is the first series to be shot on 24-frame HDTV video. It's cheaper than film (it doesn't need to be developed or processed), and the images are sharper and the color more naturalistic, which interested Lumet. The crew shoots with more than one camera at a time, editing on the fly, not unlike the You Are There and Alcoa Hour episodes Lumet directed at the dawn of his career, in the fifties. "He's orchestrating this like live television," says Sabinson. "You're going from the script page to a virtually finished product with no intervening steps. It's all staged and choreographed; the shots are all laid out. I don't know any other director who could have done this."

On the set at Kaufman Astoria Studios just before Christmas, Lumet adds a pinch of salt to restore some fizz in a pair of champagne flutes, and then jokes, "We're really blowing the budget, kids." He reports that he's reveling in the speed of HDTV production: "A typical hour of television is $1.8 million to $2 million. We're doing it for $1.1 million. I think every director fundamentally is frustrated with the pace." And then there's the creative freedom. "NBC paid me a lot of money to write a pilot, but I kind of hoped they wouldn't pick it up," the director of Network says, perhaps applying a little revisionist history, "because it was kind of mature." By that he means not Sopranos-style sex and violence, but Lumet-style meditative urban consciousness.

Next on Sabinson's schedule is another series, Nero Wolfe, cementing what he hopes will have become a must-see station for people who don't need their TV young and downmarket -- with Sabinson as the mogul. "I did two very smart things," the executive says. "I managed to shake this out of the trunk-load of 10 million unproduced scripts, and I knew enough to lay all our bets down on Sidney Lumet. There's some admirable television on basic cable, but nothing that skews to an audience like this."

By which he means educated, affluent 35-to-49-year-olds -- the same folks who, a few years back, might have been inclined to go see a Sidney Lumet picture.


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