Cable Procedurals Losing Audience

Jul 3, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Here’s a twist that basic cable networks didn’t see coming: audiences leaving police procedurals.

Off-network reruns of crime dramas on TNT, Spike TV, A&E and USA Network are losing viewers, particularly in younger demographics.

Procedurals, or police dramas with self-contained episodes that track the solving of a crime from beginning to end, have served as ratings drivers for several top-ranked general entertainment basic cable networks. For years, channels like USA and TNT have anted up multimillion-dollar license fees for the off-network syndication runs of series such as “Law & Order,” “CSI” and their spinoffs. The acquisitions provide not only large sources of advertising revenue but also promotional platforms for networks to launch their own original shows.

But in household viewership year to date, “Law & Order” on TNT is down 15 percent versus last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. On Spike TV, “CSI” is down 15 percent. On USA, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” is down 8 percent and “Law & Order: SVU” is down 2 percent. A&E’s, “Cold Case Files” is down 13 percent, “Crossing Jordan” is down 17 percent and “CSI: Miami” is down 22 percent.

“With ‘Law & Order,’ a gradual decline has been going on for two years now,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s head of research. “But in the past six to eight months, it’s started happening with the ‘CSI’s’ too. The 18 to 49s are the first to leave. Then when the older viewers start to leave, you’re in trouble.”

Waning audience interest in the format could be disastrous for several networks.

For the second quarter, TNT just reclaimed the basic cable top spot from second-place USA Network, with Spike TV ranked sixth and A&E 11th among adults 18 to 49. All owe a sizable degree of their prime-time viewership to procedural acquisitions.

And saturation of the genre will only increase. Industry faith in the format has left several networks on the hook for new shows. A&E Networks will add “CSI: Miami” later this year for a reported $1 million per episode. “Cold Case” joins TNT next year at $1.4 million per episode. In 2008, Spike gets “CSI: NY” ($1.9 million) and USA gains “NCIS” ($750,000).

A spokesman for Spike TV said the decline of “CSI” is “expected and normal.”

“We’re not sure it has anything to do with it being a procedural,” he said. “When we first launched ‘Star Trek,’ it did extremely well and declined some in its second year, so we think that’s fairly typical for off-net shows.”

At USA, a spokesperson pointed out the year-to-date 8 percent decline for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” is offset by the fact the network has aired 28 percent more episodes of the show in 2006. Plus, the program’s 18 to 49 demographic rating has increased 2 percent.

TNT and A&E declined to comment.

Not all basic cable networks have jumped on the procedural bandwagon. FX managed to climb into the top five among 18 to 49 prime-time viewers with a policy against expensive crime drama acquisitions.

“We placed our bets on not buying these because we believe there’s going to be too many of them,” said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX. “It’s been a fantastic strategy for those who got in early. For those who got in late, or for those who went back to the well for second or third helpings, we don’t see it as something that’s going to pan out.”

Despite their off-net syndication erosion, procedurals remain the most popular genre on television. The highest-rated scripted series on basic cable is TNT’s crime drama “The Closer,” while CBS’s “CSI” regular tops the broadcast charts.