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Can a Serial Killer Save a West Palm-Based Television Network?

Durham County has a sneaky way of getting under your skin. Maybe it's the familiar anytown where it's set. Or the way the characters line up along a moral spectrum that gets so blurry that even the serial killer seems human. Or at least not the monster that serial killers are in other movies and TV shows.

Another theory: It's because this violent, sinister show appears on the same television network that used to be Pax TV, which just a few years ago was trying to promote wholesome, family-oriented programs. With Durham County, it seems like Pax has gone to the dark side. Now known as Ion, the network based in West Palm Beach has finally become interesting.

The hour-long drama debuted last week and will air a new episode tonight at 10 (Ch. 16 in Broward Comcast networks and Ch. 8 in Palm Beach). I had the chance to watch some episodes this weekend, and I have to admit, it deserves the good reviews it's received thus far.

But the network will have to please more than critics if it's to turn the corner financially. In May it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a way to manage $2.7 billion in debt.This fall, it's betting on Durham County to raise the network's profile, creating momentum for an even more ambitious package of original series next fall.

I spoke this afternoon with Leslie Chesloff, the executive vice president of programming for Ion about the prospects for the show and the network.

As you can see from Ion's schedule, much of its programming comes from prime-time programs that are no longer on major networks or that have been around long enough to sell their syndication rights. For example, Criminal Minds and Ghost Whisperer are somewhat familiar to American audiences who may have seen them on CBS. But Durham County has only aired on Canadian television.

"What we liked about Durham County," says Chesloff, "is that it's different.You won't see anything else like it on television. It's a very addictive show."

The network has been creative in trying to promote the show -- earlier this month it set a Guinness world record for the biggest moving box (because the show opens with the Sweeney family's move from Toronto).

The ratings from last Monday's debut are 67 percent higher than they were for the same slot last year, says Chesloff.

Having seen the Canadian version, which has F-words, some strip club boobies and occasional violence, it seems to me that it might be hard to edit the show for the FCC Puritanical standards. But Chesloff told me it's a simple matter of muting the sounds at the appropriate times -- like in the opening scene when a man takes a basketball sized rock over his head, while an 18-year-old school girl lies beneath him. "We took out the sound of that rock hitting." Which is a pretty awful sound, believe me.

At the very least, let's hope that the editing is a little smoother than this MadTV parody of what would happen if Ion's previous incarnation, Pax, tried to syndicate The Sopranos.

Ion's best-case scenario: the series takes off and becomes a building block next fall for a new lineup of truly original series -- Chesloff says the network has already identified a dozen scripts from which to develop pilots.

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Thomas Francis

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