Hit Dramas Spark Syndie Talk

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The success of “CSI: NY,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” in prime time already has TV executives rubbing their hands in glee thinking of syndication riches.

Cable programming executives have started talking about which of these shows would help their networks-and how much they might cost-even though all three are just weeks into their freshman years.

“It’s funny. You used to buy shows in their second or third season. You and I are having a conversation in their third or fourth week,” said the head of a major cable network.

Network executives said distributor King World is already sounding out networks that might be interested in “CSI: NY,” the CBS series starring Gary Sinise, which has been beating NBC’s “Law & Order” during their Wednesday prime-time duels.

It’s certainly not too early to start talking about “CSI: NY.” After all, “CSI: Miami” was launched last year and promptly sold to A&E for $1.25 million per episode. With the original “CSI” already drawing strong ratings on cable in its off-network run, its spinoffs are seen as proven commodities. But with the quirkier “Desperate Housewives” racking up 20 million viewers weekly, any network looking to attract female viewers would have to take a close look, programming executives said.

Distributor King World had no comment on its plans to sell “CSI: NY,” which is produced by CBS Productions and Alliance Atlantis Communications in association with Jerry Bruckheimer Television. But Bill Carroll, VP, programming, at Katz Television Group said he expects the price will be in the same general area.

“In order to get everybody to play, they’re going to have to come up with some fair and equitable process,” the cable chief said, observing that A&E bought “CSI: Miami” before the original “CSI” became a proven performer on Viacom-owned Spike TV. Some executives are concerned that Viacom will want to keep the “CSI” franchise in the Viacom family.

Mr. Carroll said he expects “CSI: NY” will be available to a cable network with a once-a-week window in 2006, then stripped the following season. He also expects that networks, including TNT, which already runs “Law & Order” and has acquired “Without a Trace”; USA, which airs “Law & Order: SVU”; and Bravo in addition to Spike might be possible bidders for the show. Executives at these networks declined to comment on their acquisition strategies.

With two editions of “CSI,” Spike could run four hours of high-rated programming a day, or it could alternate the series in prime time, Mr. Carroll said.

“The concept of overexposure only comes into play if the program isn’t successful,” Mr. Carroll said. “If it’s successful, it’s not overexposed.”

“CSI” and its spinoffs are expected to work because they are closed-ended procedural shows in which a single case is solved each episode. Knowing the characters, and the events that are playing out in their background, isn’t necessary to enjoy the show, executives said.

“The name of the game in these shows is repeatability. It’s not the ratings the first time you run them; it’s the rating the 31st time you run them,” said one senior cable network programming executive.

But Mr. Carroll said that the cable landscape is starting to get crowded with these type of procedural dramas. “Although `CSI’ is doing an outstanding number, remember you’re also going to have its kissing cousins `Cold Case’ and `Without a Trace’ in the mix. At some point there’s only so much room on the schedule, so many time periods that you can run a program without everybody competing directly.”

There’s even more reason to be wary of ABC’s shows, which at this point, have strong serialized elements to them.

“As big a hit as both of those shows are, they’re at a crossroads, because if they turn out to be a prime-time soap or serial, which they’re headed to, the back-end of that has proved to be less than successful,” the cable network head said.

But Mr. Carroll said the glow of a hit will attract buyers. “If `Desperate Housewives’ continues to get 20 million viewers every week, it’s a phenomenon, and you can’t ignore a phenomenon.”

Among suitors within the Disney orbit are ABC Family, Soap Net, Lifetime and A&E. Executives at Disney divisions Buena Vista Television, which distributes “Lost” and “Housewives,” and Touchstone Television, which produces them, had no comment.

But one executive at a rival cable network said that if SoapNet could get “Desperate Housewives,” it would be worth rearranging its current schedule, which features the ABC Daytime soaps in prime time. “If they were to take `Desperate Housewives’ out for repurposing we would love to have it here,” said Deborah Blackwell, senior VP and general manager of SoapNet.

One snag might be that with fewer than 40 million subscribers, SoapNet could not pay a very high license fee for the show.

Other executives said Lifetime and the other women-oriented networks-Oxygen and WE-should be interested, along with mainstream networks.

Mr. Carroll noted that ABC is already rerunning its hits on Saturday night, and said it’s unclear what effect that tactic will have on the show’s back-end value.

“Lost’s” science-fiction aspect broadens the number of networks that might be interested, Mr. Caroll said. TNT, FX and, of course, Sci Fi Channel have had success with science fiction and fantasy-type programs.

“You can never say never about the more mainstream networks, but it would make more sense and the environment would be easier on a network where it would be something of a companion show,” he said.