Bravo gets serious

Shells out record $1.2M per episode for West Wing cable rights

A year ago, Bravo executives' idea of a big, promotable off-net drama series airing on Bravo was Moonlighting, a tread-worn 15-year-old series that had been bouncing around cable networks for years. The Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd hit played prominently in fringe, 7 p.m. ET and again at 11 p.m. The only evidence of a special financial commitment was new Claymation bumpers featuring the actors that lead in and out of commercial breaks.

Bravo is clearly getting more serious. In locking down cable rights to NBC White House series The West Wing at $1.2 million an episode, the network not only beat out at least four rivals, but demonstrated a vastly greater willingness to pay for stronger ratings.

Bravo General Manager Ed Carroll had coveted the series almost since it went on the air. "The subject matter is so smart, the writing is so quick-witted, it's liberal," he says. "We knew that it was a unique, great match for Bravo." The show is also particularly strong in Bravo's target demo of adults 25-54.

Bravo has the exclusive weekday cable rights to all off-net episodes produced through 2009. Warner keeps rights to weekend airings, which it plans to syndicate to broadcast stations.

That's a record price, beating TNT's deal for ER. That deal totaled $1.2 million per episode, but TNT-not sister AOL Time Warner division Warner-kept and resold weekend rights to broadcasters for $400,000 per episode. It proved to be an expensive mistake because ER's ratings tanked for TNT.

The West Wing deal is a symbol of Bravo's long evolution from artsy pay network to commercial-free basic cable to ad-supported cable. The network began selling ad time last year.

Bravo's prime time ratings are now sitting in Nielsen's cable basement at around 0.3. Assuming brisk growth in the two years before West Wing hits Bravo's air, Carroll believes the deal will work if the network gets a 20% -25% increase in households when the show arrives.

This is by far Bravo's heftiest, highest-profile acquisition to date. Its previous major series purchase was the off-HBO episodes of The Larry Sanders Show, at a reported $225,000 per episode. That's a much weaker property despite its cult following.

Selling action for The West Wing heated up last month. The speculation was that certain outlets, including A & E, wanted a run of the drama as early as next season, aiming to air it concurrently with NBC's prime time broadcast (similar to Once & Again's dual ABC/Lifetime run). Other suitors were TNT, USA Network and, surprisingly, Court TV.

Bravo plans to strip the series but won't pick a time slot just yet. It averted a plan to block the show from prime time. Carroll says the only restriction is that old episodes can't air opposite NBC's slot for new episodes.

The big question is whether West Wing is too topical, that it will go stale quickly.

Carroll doesn't think so: "The writing is fresh, the stories are strong, they're going to keep delivering."