If a fictionalized version of a story is popular, why not market the truth?

That's what the Discovery Channel and its fellow cable denizens are thinking. Capitalizing on the interest created by the recent release of James Cameron's Titanic, for example, Discovery is currently running (and rerunning) the one-hour documentary, Titanic: Untold Stories.

To ride the coattails of Steven Spielberg's slave-ship epic Amistad, Discovery airs Slave Ship, while the History Channel runs Ships of Slaves: the Middle Passage, and A&E features a profile of the heroic leader of the La Amistad revolt, Joseph Cinque, in its Biography series.

And if you saw Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and you want to know more about murder and intrigue in Southern society, why not check out A&E's Midnight in Savannah?

It's all part of a strategy to--as Discovery Channel programming chief Michael Quattrone recently put it in the New York Post--"piggyback on the buzz" created by big-budget movie releases.

Let Hollywood studios spend more than $200 million making and marketing films like Titanic; cable channels can turn out a new product for next to nothing.

It's a symbiotic relationship, with Hollywood and the cable networks both feeding off the promotion of the other.

"I don't know if it's a specific strategy," A&E programming executive Michael Katz says. "But if there's going to be interest in someone like Evita Perón because of a movie, it makes sense to do a documentary on Evita Perón."

Katz adds that extensively published subjects such as La Amistad, Titanic and the Savannah story (which was based on a bestselling novel) are well suited for TV documentaries because most of the research has already been done.

"It helps if the subject has a biographical or literary bent," he explains. "The book connection always helps."

To facilitate matters, sometimes the cable channels and the studios will work together. DreamWorks--the company behind Amistad, for example--coproduced all three new documentaries on the slave-ship rebellion airing on cable this month.

And while Discovery independently produced its Titanic: Untold Stories, it has teamed with Paramount--one of two studios behind Cameron's mammoth production--to run eight minutes of the documentary on large-screen monitors in the lobbies of about 1,200 theaters nationwide.

"It's not just promotional," Discovery executive Chris Moseley insists. "There is a lot of value here if you want to find information. The promotion helps romance the story."

In any event, tagging along on a studio's multimillion-dollar promotional blitz has produced big ratings. For example, A&E, which had already enjoyed success with its four-hour Titanic documentary several years ago, trimmed it to three hours and reaped renewed ratings success last week.

And even better for cable executives, they don't have to sweat the box office like their studio brethren. Consider this: Even though Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tanked, Midnight in Savannah soared, earning a solid 4.2 rating, or three million viewers, in its first showing.

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