Bruce Fretts
March 15, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

When I get out of here, I’m gonna lay in a bathtub, buy myself some silk sheets, and get cable,” says a prisoner to Mercedes Ruehl in Court TV’s first original film, Guilt by Association. ”How does that sound?”

If you’re a fan of TV movies, it sounds better and better all the time. Now that the broadcast nets have slashed their film-production budgets (five years ago, the Big Three each aired movies two nights a week, but The CBS Sunday Movie is the last remnant of that era), cable outlets are rushing to fill the niche. TNT — a longtime proponent of the genre — notched cable’s highest rating last year with the Tom Selleck shoot-’em-up Crossfire Trail, while Lifetime racked up its best numbers ever in January thanks in part to Angie Harmon’s Video Voyeur: The Susan Wilson Story (the tale of a woman secretly taped by a pervo neighbor).

In the past few years, MTV, VH1, E!, and FX have all started making original movies, and Comedy Central’s first feature will air later this year. Heck, even Animal Planet’s doing films; its adaptation of Gentle Ben, costarring Dean Cain and, well, a bear, debuts March 25.

But wait, there’s more: Two cable networks known primarily for nonfiction programs are getting into the game as well. ESPN’s A Season on the Brink (with Brian Dennehy as Bobby Knight, the college basketball coach who put the Mad in March Madness) premieres March 10, and three nights later comes Court TV’s Guilt. ”We’re looking to stretch our tentacles and get casual sports fans looking for stories of human drama,” says ESPN senior VP of programming Mark Shapiro. ”A movie is your best vehicle to obtain that.”

Court TV chairman Henry Schleiff agrees: ”Nothing can do justice — no pun intended — to human emotions about family issues better than a movie.” Guilt tackles the topic of mandatory minimum sentences, casting Oscar winner Ruehl (The Fisher King) as a mom given a 20-year term for unwittingly abetting her drug-dealer boyfriend.

Both networks will start slow, making two to four movies a year. ESPN is developing a docudrama about the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics, while Court TV plans to adapt gun-control advocate Sarah Brady’s story. Although Season and Guilt cost a fairly pricey $4-5 million each, the nets hope to recoup their investments via frequent repeats (Season will air 10 times on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Classic) and video releases. These projects are also economically efficient because they ”repurpose” material already owned by the cable channels — Season incorporates some of ESPN’s old NCAA footage, and Court TV is finding script fodder in its library of cases.

With ESPN and Court TV duking it out in the film biz, only one question remains: Who’ll be first to do a movie about the ”Hockey Dad” trial? ”It’s the perfect joint venture for us,” laughs Court TV’s Schleiff. ”Tell ’em we’ll do lunch sometime.” Spoken like a true movie mogul.

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