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Hot Market in Cable for Network Dramas

Nov 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Thanks to cable, off-network dramas are selling better than ever.
When Universal brought “Law & Order” to cable on A&E in 1994, the much-coveted NBC franchise player-now airing as many as five times a day on TNT-led a resurgence of off-net dramas being sold into cable syndication.
Where only a few years ago the once-thriving market had shrunk to a few relatively insignificant deals on broadcast, recently there have been numerous million-dollar-plus-per-episode deals with a variety of cable networks. CBS hit “CSI” brought $1.6 million per show from Spike TV, while “Law & Order: SVU” brought $1.3 million from USA and “The West Wing” $1.2 million from Bravo.
In the latest big deal, TNT paid $1.35 million per episode for “Without a Trace,” which came out of the summer with good ratings against “ER” reruns and continued to do well this fall.
While the landscape for selling today’s off-net hours indeed appears healthy, it’s in stark contrast to that of much of the 1980s, when, Bill Carroll remembers, syndicated hour-long dramas were a staple of broadcast television, not cable.
“For a long time,” the Katz Television Group VP and media rep said, “they were all over the place. `The Rockford Files,’ `Quincy,’ `Little House on the Prairie,’ `Bonanza’ were all staples. The biggest show in syndication … was `Magnum, P.I.”’
That was before a perfect storm of shifting market conditions practically pelted syndicated dramas off the broadcast dial.
The first change to appear on the radar was a thunderous influx of megahit off-net sitcoms as the broadcasting syndicated programming staple. Their names today are stuff of legend: “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends, “Home Improvement,” “The Simpsons” and, most recently, “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Not long afterward, lightning struck with the growth of the Fox network and later, UPN and The WB. As viewers began tuning into a wider variety of new shows with new attitudes, hour-long reruns began to get crowded out.
Starting in the early 1990s a boom in first-run syndication of now-familiar names such as “The Ricki Lake Show,” “The Jenny Jones Show” and “The Jerry Springer Show” blew onto the syndication scene like a major hurricane.
Shelter finally came when “Law & Order” landed on basic cabler A&E-and things haven’t been the same since.
Hour dramas now are all over cable and not just on the first-tier players. A&E airs “Crossing Jordan” and will air “CSI: Miami.” ABC Family will air “Gilmore Girls” next year. FX airs “The Practice” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Syndicated episodes of “Matlock” are seen on the Hallmark Channel, “Fantasy Island” on Nickelodeon and “Roswell” on the Sci Fi Channel. The list goes on.
With hours on cable suddenly in demand, some cablecasters have hit upon a Solomon-like solution to the problem of rapidly rising fees: Split the baby. Various shared-window deals involve formulas that might split daytime and nighttime as well as the cost. USA and Hallmark Channel share “JAG” in this fashion. Sci Fi and TNT share “NYPD Blue” and “The X-Files.”
“Cable is the big player for hours,” said Liberty Corp. President Jim Keelor, whose 15 stations in the Southeast and Midwest buy the occasional “ER,” “The Practice” or “CSI” for weekend fare.
“We’ve got `West Wing.’ We’ve got `ER’,” said LIN Television VP Paul Karpowicz, whose company’s 15 stations include UPN and WB affiliates. “Mostly barter deals. The time periods are not critical time periods, while on cable, the hours are prime time.”
But broadcasters, syndicators and station reps agree that stations would be quick to find appropriate spots for hit shows such as “Law & Order” or “CSI,” if one became available.
Syndicators insist that the repeated and repurposed runs on cable don’t damage ratings for the broadcast product. “It certainly hasn’t hurt `Law & Order,”’ said a syndicator not affiliated with NBC or the program.
Turnabout can be fair play. Sony Pictures’ “Strong Medicine,” currently airing on cable-net Lifetime, is being prepared for syndication-either on cable, broadcast or both.
In a skit, the cast of Fox’s “Mad TV” once joked that if HBO drama “The Sopranos” aired on the family-oriented Pax network, the censored violence, profanity and sex would leave only a few seconds of remaining programming. But a deal already has been made for the popular cable comedy “Sex and the City” with TBS Superstation for $700,000 an episode, with exclusivity for 15 months until another deal with Tribune Broadcasting kicks in.
Since high-profile self-dealing lawsuits were brought in the past by Steven Bochco and Alan Alda, the talk about industry consolidation perhaps leading to sweetheart syndication deals has quieted down. Too many creative types at the syndication table have long-term interests to protect, and aren’t likely to allow those interests to be compromised, sources said.
While NBC’s acquisition of Bravo hasn’t led to “Fear Factor’s” Joe Rogan having a sitdown at “Inside the Actors Studio” with host James Lipton, NBC has brought the Emmy-winning “West Wing” to Bravo, but that lucrative deal was made before NBC’s ownership of the highbrow cable net.
As for Mr. Rogan, he may be making an appearance at the National Association of Television Program Executives conference. NBC Enterprises, which distributes “Fear,” would not confirm, but informed sources said “Fear Factor” may be getting ready for syndication, perhaps testing the waters for other reality offerings.