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CBS' New Movies Include Pope Miniseries

An upcoming CBS miniseries about Pope John Paul II (search) is a "papal page turner," the network's programming chief said Tuesday.

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said the film, from the producers of the network's 2000 miniseries "Jesus," will focus on the late pope's life and times. An air date for the 2005-06 season was not announced.

"It's a very exciting story. He's a great character," Tassler told the Television Critics Association.

The Polish-born Karol Wojtyla lived a rich and heroic life in turbulent periods including World War II, she said. The movie will dramatize how he received his calling to join the priesthood and his long reign as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

John Paul II died April 2. Another made-for-TV movie, "Karol, A Man Who Became Pope (search)," already has aired in Europe.

"There's something relatable and very heroic about him," Tassler said.

Cary Elwes (search) ("Saw," "The Princess Bride") will play the young Wojtyla. Ian Holm (search) (who played Bilbo Baggins in "The Lord of the Rings") portrays the pope in his later years.

The film is part of CBS' continued commitment to longform programming, Tassler said.

Other movie projects are not so lofty: "Vampire Bats," a movie about mutant killer bats, and "Category 7: The End of the World," a "superstorm" disaster movie, also are set for next season.

Tassler cheerfully characterized such action movies, and last season's "Locusts!" and "Spring Break Shark Attack," as "popcorn" flicks with young audience appeal.

"Martha Behind Bars (search)," which dramatizes Martha Stewart's run-in with the law and stars Cybill Shepherd, will air Sept. 25 to help kick off the new season.

Asked if CBS intended to steal the thunder from Stewart's projects with competitor NBC, including a version of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice," Tassler said CBS is airing the Stewart movie because "it's a great concept" that could draw an audience.

Pressed again on the question of whether the film could hurt NBC, she replied: "We'll have to see."

Tassler also took a moment to savor a comeback for broadcasting, which is finally stemming viewer erosion and fielding shows that promote the kind of buzz long claimed by such cable hits as HBO's "The Sopranos."

"We've reclaimed control of the watercooler from cable," she said, referring to the popularity of series including CBS' "CSI" franchise and, on ABC, newcomers "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost."

The broadcast networks in general had virtually the same number of prime-time viewers this past season than they had in 2003-04, which is significant because viewership had dropped steadily, every year, since the 1993-94 season.

CBS also has two spiritual shows debuting this fall, "Ghost Whisperer" and "Threshold."

In "Ghost Whisperer," Jennifer Love Hewitt is set to star as a newlywed who talks to ghosts struggling with unfinished business on earth.

In "Threshold," an assembled team of brilliant scientists is pushed to the emotional limit when it must deal with an extraterrestrial craft that lands in the Atlantic Ocean.