The latest news from the TV beat

CHANCE OF A LIFETIME Comedy Central and MTV have counterprogrammed broadcast rivals with out-there animated fare (Beavis and Butt-head, South Park), but can cablers compete with the nets on their own turf? Lifetime Television will find out next month when it premieres Big Four-like fare Maggie (Ann Cusack), a sitcom about a wife and mother who falls for her veterinarian mentor; Oh Baby (Cynthia Stevenson, Joanna Gleason), a comedy about a single woman who decides to have a baby; and Any Day Now (Annie Potts, Lorraine Toussaint), a drama about two women—one white, one black—who grew up together in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s.

While the shows look promising, it won’t be easy. For starters, the net’s chosen Tuesday—arguably this fall’s most competitive night (thanks in part to Fox’s moving King of the Hill to 8 p.m.)—as a launching pad for all three new entries. There are also greater financial risks; programming broadcast-quality shows requires spending broadcast bucks—several hundred thousand dollars more per episode than the usual cable fare.

But Lifetime president and CEO Doug McCormick is counting on the increasingly conservative programming climate: “The broadcast networks have ceded so many time periods to newsmagazines; they’re keeping their risks down.” Furthermore, unlike the Big Four, a mere mid-twos (i.e., 2.4 million viewers) rating equals cable success. Eat your heart out, NBC.

RESTORING ORDER Law & Order got a little too personal for exec producer Dick Wolf last season. Plotlines included Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) confronting his daughter’s death and Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) locked in a custody battle. This season, Wolf vows a return to strictly cases. Why the shift in the first place? Wolf says many of the actors weren’t under contract, and creating character cliff-hangers allowed the show to survive if cast members chose not to return. In the end, only Lowell left. She’ll be replaced by Baywatch NightsAngie Harmon.