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Romola Garai stars in The Hour, a thrilling six-part drama which takes viewers behind the scenes of the launch of a topical news programme in London in 1956.

It started with a trip to Hef's famous Playboy Mansion. But the real splash, as it were, was on Thursday night - when TV critics mingled with stars at Gordon Ramsay's resto at The London West Hollywood and a DJ spun tunes for synchronized swimmers making moves in a rooftop pool.

In case the recent slew of Emmy nominations didn't make the point, the parties at this week's television critics tour sure did: Cable is no longer the poor stepchild of broadcast, but a bona fide Hollywood contender.

Well before the current TV tour in Los Angeles - where cable execs have been unveiling the big new shows for the fall season - original dramas such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire have overshadowed offerings from traditional networks.

Cable's reality stars have also gained traction, populating the covers of most magazines as ratings for programming like A&E's Hoarders and Discovery's Deadliest Catch ratchet up the ratings. Talking about his new show, Survivor alum Rob Mariano says he signed up for History's Around the World in 80 Ways because of Thom Beers, who produced both Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.

"Those are the shows I'm watching," he said "I jumped at the opportunity to work with [Beers]"

Cable has also succeeded with niche audiences largely ignored by mainstream broadcasters. Lifetime president Nancy Dubuc told press that her channel has found "its inner chick," while History showed off high-testosterone fare such as Swamp People and Pawn Stars.

And, yes, those cable networks know how to throw a party. The Hef bash was in honour of Playboy Channel's titillating new series, TV for 2. The London swim do was a nod to the big influence of Brits this season.

Herewith, what the schmooze and the screenings suggested about what will be hot this fall on cable.

CAN WE TALK?

Queen Winfrey's departure from daytime has cable scrambling to fill the void.

The most obvious heir to the throne is CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, whose new daytime show Anderson airs in syndication Sept. 12. While male critics on the tour seemed surprised to learn how popular Cooper is among women, his charm, poise and breeding (hey, he's a Vanderbilt) are likely to make him a hit among the predominantly female daytime demographic.

As for the man himself, he was quick to give fellow daytime host Kelly Ripa her due: "It's hard to do daytime, and she makes it look so effortless," he told a small group of (mainly women) reporters gathered after his panel discussion. In sample clips the format looks to be an updated version of the old Phil Donahue, with Cooper flitting about the studio audience with microphone in hand.

Rosie O'Donnell, meanwhile, has a new show launching on the Oprah Winfrey Network in September, which will borrow heavily from her previous daytime gabfest in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Translation: Celebrity interviews, parenting advice, charity plugs and plenty of show tunes.

BIG-TICKET TV

With AMC riding high on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and, most recently, The Killing, it's easy to forget that its staple has been old Westerns. "We have a loyal fan base, whether it's episodes of The Rifleman or anything with Clint, so it was a no-brainer for us to look for the next great Western," said AMC programming VP Joel Stillerman.

He was referring to Hell on Wheels, which will launch Oct. 16. Filmed in Alberta, the 10-part series is set in the days after the Civil War with Anson Mount as a menacing former Confederate soldier who sets out in search of the Union dastards who killed his wife. Critics were mixed, but viewers hungry for a genre long neglected will probably give this tale of revenge and rebirth a chance.

No less epic is Moby Dick, a lavish reimagining of Melville's classic. The $25-million (U.S.) budget is huge for three-hour TV movie airing on upstart U.S. cable outlet Encore. William Hurt chews up the scenery as the embittered Captain Ahab, with ex- X-Files star Gillian Anderson as his missus.

REALITY, OF A SORT

Never a broadcaster to shy away from controversy - witness the ruckus over polygamist reality series Sister Wives - TLC now offers All-American Muslim, an unscripted profile of five Muslim families in the blue-collar burg of Dearborn, Mich. Much of the focus is on sisters Suhaila and Shadia, one a devout Muslim, the other a tattooed wild child who married a Catholic dude.

Other reality fun includes National Geographic Channel's Rocket City Rednecks, about Alabama hillbillies who happen to be rocket scientists employed at the nearby NASA flight centre. (And if you think it's too obvious for them to test moonshine as rocket fuel, guess again.) In the same vein, NGC's Border Wars documents the daily battle of U.S. Customs agents and Homeland Security types to keep America safe, while Discovery Channel's Weed Wars goes behind the scenes at the Oakland Harborside Health Center, a medical cannabis dispensary. Yes, the owners test the product.

TV COMEBACKS

Kelsey Grammer gets serious this fall and he's doing it on cable. Following the abysmal failures of his post-Frasier network sitcoms Back to You (14 episodes) and Hank (five episodes), Grammer moves into darker territory on the Starz channel drama Boss, playing Chicago mayor Tom Kane, who runs the city with an iron fist while hiding his early-onset dementia. Connie Nielsen, most recently of Friday Night Lights, plays his wife.

Then there's Marciano's History Channel show, Around the World in 80 Ways, in which he attempts to circumnavigate the globe using different modes of transport. The most difficult so far? "Ostriches," he said.

Also look for the second coming of Beavis & Butt-head, the cartoon jackanapes who had everyone saying "heh-heh" back in the nineties. The early buzz on the MTV remake, which comes from original creator Mike Judge, is that it's every bit as shamelessly juvenile as before.

ANOTHER BRITISH INVASION

The British invasion of star central didn't stop just because Wills and Kate left.

The show with the biggest buzz is BBC America's The Hour, created and written by Abi Morgan ( Sex Traffic, White Girl). Currently airing in the U.K., the six-part series is set at the Beeb in the mid-1950s, with The Wire's Dominic West as a vainglorious anchor battling a rival reporter (Ben Wishaw) for the affections of their producer (Romola Garai). Also figure in a Cold War backdrop and lots of smoking cigarettes in offices.

"I promise a good ending," Morgan told reporters. "It's about heightened repartee, but then I wanted a jagged edge twist." The producers also insist the press scandal in the U.K. can only help boost the show's profile for American audiences. There's already talk of a second season.

Equally anticipated is BBC's Bedlam, a supernatural drama about people possessed by the spirits of the infamous asylum. There's lots of pretty young people battling ghostly forces - and Comic-Con fans have already given this one a good reception. "I couldn't believe how many people turned out for our session," said Theo James, who stars as the only one who actually sees ghosts.

Another highlight is the comedy Friday Night Dinner, about two Jewish brothers (Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal) who spend each Friday night with their parents. Despite the slim premise, the show drew huge ratings in the U.K. and the critics in L.A. laughed during the sizzle reel.

The BBC also has the best new unscripted fall series: 24 Hours in the ER documents the life-and-death drama taking place daily in London's busiest emergency room. The 14-part series was filmed around the clock over 28 days, with 70 remote cameras. "We looked at a lot of American dramas like ER to find the characters," says producer/director Amy Flanagan on how she chose subjects to focus on. Graphic but gripping.

TRIBUTE TREATMENT

American Masters and PBS lifetime-achievement programs have new competition as cable gets into the business of profiling famous people this fall. And why not? TV profiles are cheap to make, if the subject is willing, and invariably garner healthy ratings.

Airing Aug. 15 is the new HBO documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, a primer on Ms. Steinem, the woman credited with launching the modern feminist movement, and still pushing the cause at 77. Also from HBO, S ing Your Song (Oct. 17) rewinds the life and times of Harry Belafonte, including his contributions to the civil rights movement.

Encore, meanwhile, pays homage with Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, with reflections from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Carol Burnett.

ONES TO WATCH

Remember the name Ashley Rickards. Following raves for her performance as an autistic teen in the indie film Fly Away, the 19-year-old Florida native is thrown into a very different role on MTV's scripted series Awkward. Reviews for the coming-of-age comedy, which debuted last week, steadfastly praise Rickards as the painfully shy teen Jenna, who becomes the talk of her high school after an accident is mistaken for a suicide attempt.

Also poised for a breakout this fall is Rachael Carpani, who moves from support duty on A&E's The Glades to the lead role on Lifetime's ambitious crime drama Against the Wall. The Aussie-born actress plays a Chicago cop whose promotion to detective pleases her family of cops - until they discover she's working in Internal Affairs. Critics made much of Carpani's resemblance to Meg Ryan. "Even my mom thinks I look like her," she admitted.

CANINE TV

The Hallmark Channel trotted out the famed Hollywood pooch Rin Tin Tin (or at least a descendant) to promote the inaugural Hero Dog Awards Show, set to air on Nov. 11. Even star-weary critics warmed up to the canine. The faux awards show recognizes achievement in law enforcement and guide dogs. Celebrity presenters include Whoopi Goldberg and, naturally, Betty White.

Animal Planet's new series Saved recounts true-life stories of animals that have saved people's lives, though not in the traditional sense. In one case, it's a man contemplating suicide until he meets an adorable little dachshund; in another it's a family honouring their dead son's memory by adopting his puppy.

DAY OF INFAMY

Every U.S. network will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, as will the cable channels. And while there may have been a little 9/11 fatigue in the past, the anniversary has sparked interest among critics at the tour.

The offerings include Nickelodeon's Nick News with Linda Ellerbee: 9/11, which will feature the former network news anchor (and model for Murphy Brown) talking to kids 13 and under about the tragic event. From Showtime, The Love We Make is a documentary detailing the efforts of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney to help New York rebuild and recover, with a little help from his friends Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Leo DiCaprio.

The most closely-watched cable special, though, will be the National Geographic Channel's George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview, in which the former commander-in-chief reflects on one of the darkest days in American history, and his feelings on the recent assassination of Osama bin Laden.

LATE BLOOMERS

How did it take so long for TV to discover Laura Dern?

At 44, the onetime star of Wild at Heart and Jurassic Park is already getting noticed for HBO's Enlightened. Dern is electrifying as a woman hell-bent on self-destruction when an abrupt spiritual awakening pushes her toward an enlightened life - and disrupts everyone around her, including her mother, played by Dern's real-life mother, Dianne Ladd. "You learn how incredibly unlikable a trait honesty is," Dern said of her character.

As for working with Mom, "she's an incredible actor and we haven't worked together for many years," Dern said. "Even the cons are pros. Family can be complicated and you can't help but be honest in front of a family relationship."

Also getting a second chance - and also 44 - is Eric Esch, who became briefly famous in the mid-nineties as heavyweight boxer Butterbean. On the new Investigation Discovery series Big Law: Deputy Butterbean, the 400-pounder is a reserve deputy with the sheriff's narcotic unit in Jasper, Alabama. Expect a constant stream of comments about cops in doughnut shops.