Start the bidding– `Blue’s’ back on block

Apr 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Steven Bochco will get another chance to find out what his show “NYPD Blue” is worth in the off-network arena.
The creator and executive producer of “NYPD Blue” ended his two-year legal battle with Fox just days before a jury trial was to decide if Twentieth Century Fox had undercharged sister FX network for “NYPD Blue’s” off-network rights.
Mr. Bochco will receive an estimated $20 million to $40 million settlement, and FX agreed to give up its rerun rights a year early. Representatives for News Corp., Fox and Mr. Bochco declined comment on the terms of the settlement.
However, sources said Twentieth might have had more to lose if the case had gone to a trial-it could have emboldened other Twentieth producers, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Joss Whedon and “The Practice’s” David E. Kelley, to re-examine their rerun deals with FX.
“I think if this had gone to trial, it would have opened up a long line of disgruntled producers who think they’ve been screwed in the past,” said a cable syndication consultant, who wished to remain anonymous.
Now the only question to be answered is: How much is “NYPD Blue” really worth? Less than the $400,000 an episode it’s now getting from FX or closer to the stratospheric $1.6 million an episode “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” extracted from TNN last week?
“From what I hear, Twentieth has expressed the clear intent to hold an `open bidding process,’ but that’s often an implied notion in the Hollywood studios’ lexicon,” joked a veteran cable syndication consultant, who requested anonymity.
According to a knowledgeable source, Twentieth Television has not yet opened the official bidding process for “NYPD Blue,” but it is expected to “take it out again in about two weeks.”
The source said “Blue” could command more than $400,000 because off-network sale prices are hit-driven and “Blue” is still a hit. On the downside, many of the natural basic-cable homes for “Blue” are already “drama-heavy.”
In the lawsuit, Mr. Bochco contended that the show was valued at more than $600,000 per episode based on current market prices in 1997. Twentieth’s sales of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Practice” to FX shortly after were for more than $600,000 per episode.
In today’s marketplace, dramas such as “CSI,” “The West Wing” and “Law & Order: SVU” have surpassed the $1 million-per-episode mark. However, “NYPD Blue” has already run for three years on FX, with over 180 episodes averaging more than six exposures each. ABC is still producing fresh episodes, though, so some cable watchers say there could still be strong interest from other cable suitors (possibly including FX).
Although TNN, Bravo and Court TV have been recent customers in the super-heated off-network drama market, against traditional buyers such as AOL Time Warner’s TNT and TBS Superstation networks, USA Inc.’s USA Network, Sci-Fi Channel and its planned Crime Channel and the Fox networks, it remains to be seen if the upward bidding trend will hold true for “NYPD Blue.”
Insiders at Court TV, TNT, TBS and USA Networks say they are interested in fielding bidding prospectuses from Twentieth for “Blue.” One source at TNN said the network is not interested due to its reformatting as a “pop culture” network.
A more imposing question still looms in the aftermath of the Bochco suit: Will the vertically integrated media giants ever be reluctant to sell to their sister companies?
“Our answer is basically no, especially when it comes to us,” a TBS spokesperson said, “because we’ve always been fair and aboveboard. We have always done arm’s-length agreements … sometimes our folks here feel that we’re paying extra” just to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“When it comes to a lawsuit coming down to [the] wire like the Bochco case did, a settlement of this size indicates that the studio [Twentieth] has suddenly become sensitized to the need to fairly bid out shows for client producers,” said a broadcast syndication consultant, who also asked to remain nameless. “The potential for these kinds of abuses has grown exponentially since the death of fin-syn [the financial interest and syndication rules] over five years ago, because I think [the] vertically integrated studios are ready to push the envelope at any time.”
Louis Chunovic and Chris Pursell contributed to this story.