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‘NCIS’ Heading to Off-Network Sale

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In a market where cable networks can’t seem to get enough of off-network procedural dramas, Paramount Domestic Television is making its military-themed crime series “NCIS” available starting in fall 2007.

“NCIS,” which follows a team of investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, began its third season on CBS last week. The series, which airs at 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesdays, is the only procedural drama on broadcast that has not been snapped up by cable networks, which have become increasingly hungry for the popular, brand-building series.

Seventy episodes of “NCIS” will be completed by the end of this season. The show would join another broadcast network drama on the sales block for a cable run in fall 2007-NBC Universal’s “Las Vegas.” Warner Bros.’ “Cold Case” has already been sold to TNT for 2007.

Procedurals have been a profitable business for studios. In December 2004 NBC Universal paid itself $2 million an episode to air “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” as a strip on its cable network USA and on weekends on Bravo starting this fall. Spike reportedly paid $2 million per episode of “CSI: NY” and A&E bought “CSI: Miami” for $1.25 million an episode.

Similar numbers can be expected for an “NCIS” sale, Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group, said.

“Procedurals seem to have a pretty significant lifespan,” Mr. Carroll said. “You can run them every day, a couple times a day, and still have success. A million an episode seems to be the going rate.”

Shooting for a cable run makes sense for Paramount, since an exclusive deal with one cable operator, rather than incorporating a weekend run on broadcast stations, comes with a premium, Mr. Carroll said.

“They are either going to pay a premium for exclusivity, or if they don’t they have a Monday-through-Friday window and a broadcast window based on barter sales with the show running on weekends,” Mr. Carroll said. “That’s sort of become the pattern.”

To drum up interest and excitement for its sales pitch, Paramount anonymously sent out Apple iPods the week of Sept. 12 to senior executives at TNT, Spike, The Hallmark Channel, FX, Lifetime, A&E, Court TV and NBC Universal’s cable operations. Personalized messages on the iPods told the executives to read trade ads appearing the week of Sept. 19. The ads featured the headline “Play the Game” and informed the buyers they would be having a package delivered Sept. 20. The package contained a game that asked the recipients to rank nine broadcast procedurals-the “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchise shows, “Without a Trace,” “Cold Case” and “NCIS”-on “viewer passion” based on surveys done on the Web site TV.com. Completed lists had to be faxed back to an anonymous 661 area code number last Thursday. Whoever comes closest to ranking the nine shows correctly will win three walk-on roles in “NCIS.”

Paramount wouldn’t release the correct rankings, but a spokesman for the company said “NCIS” scores “up on the top of the list.”

The actual rankings are less important than the fact that “NCIS” is the sole procedural still available, said John Nogawski, president of Paramount Domestic Television.

“Everything on that list is already sold,” Mr. Nogawski said. “We’re the last thing to go on sale.”

“NCIS” was misunderstood from the very beginning, said David Stapf, president of Paramount Network Television, despite claims made by the show’s creator, veteran producer Donald P. Bellisario.

“It was initially perceived as another ‘JAG’ or even a ‘JAG’ spinoff,” Mr. Stapf said, referring to Mr. Bellisario’s last hit for CBS in the Tuesday 8 p.m. (ET) time period. “From the get-go he kept insisting this is not ‘JAG,’ and if we market and act as if it’s another ‘JAG’ we’re going to essentially get the same audience.”

The show, which stars Mark Harmon, is different from the buttoned-down legal adventure that was “JAG,” as well as from other procedurals on the air, because of its sometimes comedic tone, Mr. Stapf said. “There’s a lot of subtle humor and just outright funny situations on the show in an environment where you don’t expect it,” he said.

Unlike most other procedurals, “NCIS” airs earlier in prime time than the higher-profile 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. time slots usually reserved for cop and detective franchises. Despite having the benefit of consistency due to having the same time period for its entire run, “NCIS” has often been overshadowed by Fox’s midseason reality phenomenon “American Idol,” which airs against it. The time slot speaks to the show’s strength, said Scott Koondel, executive VP of Paramount Domestic Television.

“If you’re ‘Without a Trace,’ you can run promos in ‘Survivor,'” Mr. Koondel said. “If you’re a 10 o’clock show, you’re promoting at the highest viewer levels. At eight o’clock you’re handicapped.”

“NCIS” may not have the notoriety or sky-high ratings of its time-period competitor “Idol,” but the show still has a ratings story to tell, said Lisa Quan, VP and associate director of broadcast research for Magna Global.

“The show has been performing very well for CBS,” Ms. Quan said. “It’s not as high-profile as the network’s other programming, unfortunately, but it has been solid for CBS. It should be able to pull in a decent audience for whatever network that picks it up.”

For the 2003-04 season, the show’s first, “NCIS” scored a 2.6 rating in adults 18 to 49 and 11.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. For 2004-05, the series improved its average in the demo by 19 percent and increased its total viewer number by 15 percent. Despite airing against “Idol” for the entire second half of the season, “NCIS” brought in more viewers on Tuesday than any other drama in 2004-05, beating out “House,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “NYPD Blue.” Over the summer “NCIS” consistently won its time period in adults 18 to 49, total viewers and adults 25 to 54.

In its Sept. 20 premiere, “NCIS” won its time period in most major demos, including adults 18 to 49, where the series grew 19 percent from its premiere last season (3.8 versus 3.2).

A cable run may help the show’s fortunes on broadcast if it stays on the air through 2007, said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for Campbell Mithun.

“It not only has a future in cable but may be discovered by younger audiences that don’t normally make the network their first stop on their remote control,” he said.