It's Hour Hero
Dramas can hit big, get hefty licenses
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/11/2004 7:00:00 PM
When Warner Bros. auctioned cable rights to Without a Trace last fall, the big surprise was not the solid $1.35 million-per-episode price that Warner corporate sibling TNT agreed to pay for the hour-long off-CBS drama series.
No, the big surprise was that one of the networks barely losing out in the bidding was Lifetime Television. Lifetime hasn't been willing to write big checks for syndicated product for years, instead allocating money to original dramas and movies.
Times are changing. Lifetime is in a ratings slump, and network executives have decided that they need to lessen their reliance on old made-for-TV movies and Golden Girls and juice the Nielsens with some pricey off-net dramas.
Lifetime's entry as a serious bidder could make for an interesting year in the cable-syndication market, as studios push product they can't readily sell into the more lucrative broadcast-station market. Generally, that translates to one-hour dramas that stations have no available time slots to air, except on weekends.
One big question is how much studios can continue to collect by splitting a show's rights, offering weekday runs to cable and weekend runs to a collection of broadcast stations. That has been a reliable device for selling ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Twentieth Television President Bob Cook sees that as a big challenge for studios. "Weekend dramas are enjoying a much lower rating than the past," he said. "The broadcast weekend is becoming less attractive."
The hottest off-broadcast shows that networks expect to see soon include Cold Case, another Warner Bros. off-CBS crime drama. It's a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced show like CSI, which Spike bought for a record $1.6 million per episode after the show's first season. Buyers are eager to bid on Universal Television's NBC hit Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but it's not clear whether that will come to market before NBC completes its planned takeover of Vivendi Universal.
But those could be eclipsed by an oddity: The Sopranos, Home Box Office's newest attempt to resell a toned-down version of one of its explicit series to cable and, perhaps, to broadcast. (HBO has already sold cable rights to Sex and the City to TBS and a broadcast window of the risqué comedy to Tribune Broadcasting stations and Young Broadcasting's KRON-TV San Francisco.)
Warner is also pitching Smallville, the young-Superman show that industry executives see as likely to end up on Sci Fi Channel.
Among the more interesting plays will be 20th Century Fox Television's efforts to sell acclaimed series 24. Although it's highly rated, network executives don't expect 24 to repeat very well because the storyline is heavily serialized from one episode to the next, usually poison in syndication. Fox Broadcasting doesn't even repeat the shows. Buena Vista Television's Alias has a similar serial character and has been on the cable market for months, but an industry executive says the asking price is falling.
Cook counters that that means 24 isn't as overexposed as other dramas. "Serialization is something they use as a negotiating tool. Everybody's trying to reach men."
At NATPE, NBC Enterprises is offering Fear Factor, the NBC bug-eating reality series, which some believe might have syndication potential, unlike other reality shows, because each of its episodes is self-contained; most other reality shows have a continuing storyline that makes them harder to syndicate to broadcasters or cable nets.
That's why cable networks are filled with Law & Order envy. Rival programming executives see how TNT has galvanized its ratings since securing rights to the NBC hit from Universal Television in 2001, regularly drawing 3 million viewers. That's often double what an embarrassed A&E drew running the show daily for years. TNT has loaded its schedule with the show to an unprecedented level, some weeks filling eight evening slots in three days and airing nothing else some evenings.
Executives at rival USA Network deride TNT as "the Law & Order channel." But, of course, when USA got rights to strip spinoff Special Victim's Unit, those same executives scheduled the show twice nightly, firming their network's own ratings.
Plenty of sure bets have fizzled off-net. Bravo paid a then-record $1.2 million per episode for The West Wing, but all it got is a show that generates weak ratings. A&E hasn't been energized by expensive bids for Third Watch and Crossing Jordan.
As prices get higher, cable networks may increasingly agree to share windows among themselves. So far, it has primarily been with older shows. TNT and Sci Fi are successfully splitting rights to The X-Files; Hallmark Channel and USA have split a new deal for JAG; TV Land and Oxygen share Roseanne.
Warner Bros. Domestic Television President Eric Frankel said the overlap between networks is shockingly small. When A&E and TNT shared rights to Law & Order for a year, "less than 7% of the audience watched the show on both networks. Most viewers are watching very different networks."
Indeed, cable ratings for a show are higher when new episodes are still on the original broadcast network. Jane Blaney, USA senior vice president of program acquisitions and scheduling, noted, "One year after it's done on network, it's done in prime time cable. The public suddenly thinks it's an 'old' rerun; it won't do as well."
Networks' eagerness for off-net shows will likely grow higher next fall, when Spike TV's rights to strip CSI kick in. The network has repurposed the show with a late-night run for more than a year with limited success. But rival network executives expect Spike to schedule CSI—the top show on broadcast TV—frequently and promote it heavily. "CSI is going to change the face of that network," said an envious executive at one rival network, adding that the show is a good hedge in case Spike's overall "guy network" strategy misfires.
Spike' Vice President of Programming Jeff Goldberg says he needs no hedge. "CSI is a great show for the Spike strategy."
|Recent Cable Syndication Deals|
|No signs of waning demand|
|Series||Buyer||Price per episode|
|Source: company reports
|Law & Order: SVU||USA||$1.5 million|
|The West Wing||Bravo||$1.2 million|
|Without a Trace||TNT||$1.35 million|
|CSI: Miami||A&E||$1 million|
|Sex and the City||TBS||$700,000|
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