CBS Seeks New Way In To Cable News

No, it’s not a CNN partnership; Eye’s distribution division is looking to sell Boss, Crimesider

CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves has never denied that talks with CNN for a news partnership could resurface, but for now his company is targeting cable news networks for a different kind of deal.

CBS Television Distribution is courting the cable news and business nets as potential distribution outlets and is using two projects—the off-net unscripted drama Undercover Boss and new original series Crimesider—to do it.

“If I’m a cable news network, when am I going to have the opportunity to buy a show that matches my brand and appeals to my audience?” says Scott Koondel, CTD president of distribution and CBS Corp. senior VP of corporate licensing and distribution. “Undercover Boss covers relevant topics, and it’s current. This show could be to these [news] networks what NCIS is to USA.”

The cable news and business networks—including Fox News, Fox Business Network, CNN, HLN, MSNBC and CNBC—are hardly the first place distributors go when taking new shows to market. But because these networks’ programming is inexpensive and their subscriber fees are high, many of the cable news nets are sitting on some cash, sources say. Acquiring off-net and original programs that can both build their audiences and burnish their brands may make sense for these networks, while creating new buyers for off-net content. None of the cable news and business nets would comment for this article.

While Undercover Boss is an unscripted show, it plays like a drama, says Koondel. Each episode is self-contained, unlike competition shows, which are highly serialized. Once viewers know the winner of American Idol or Survivor, they have little interest in watching episodes again, thus the lack of back end for repeats. To freshen things up even more, Koondel and Boss’ producers are providing director’s cuts of each episode that include all-new footage.

In its second season, Undercover Boss has averaged 12.1 million viewers on Sunday nights, ranking 21st. That number improves when the show is not competing against NFL football. The show does best among news viewers and men, among whom it is ranked third or fourth in the key demographics.

CTD is selling Undercover Boss for cash license fees on a per-episode basis. Popular CBS drama Hawaii Five-0 just sold to TNT for figures in the mid-$2 million range. Hawaii Five-0, while a traditional procedural drama, is averaging just under 12 million viewers per episode in its first season.

Besides Undercover Boss, CTD also is shopping Crimesider to cable buyers, including the cable news and business networks. The program is based on the blog of the same name, which resides on CBS News’ 48 Hours Website and was created by Susan Zirinsky, 48 Hours’ executive producer.

Crimesider already has a solid following, averaging 2.7 million unique visitors per month and 114 million page views in the second half of 2010, according to CBS. The site tracks all sorts of breaking crime stories, such as the continuing search for missing nursing student Holly Bobo and the murder of a 38-year-old man by his girlfriend’s 12-year-old son.

CTD will shop Crimesider to cable networks first, with the intention to launch it on broadcast stations in 2012.

Selling off-net fare to cable news and business networks is not unprecedented. In January, CNBC started airing 60 Minutes. CNBC’s version includes interviews and pieces from the storied CBS newsmagazine that are repackaged, updated and given new wrap-arounds with Scott Pelley, just named Katie Couric’s replacement at the CBS Evening News. The business news network airs the program in late night on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

While 60 Minutes is closely associated with the CBS News brand, the program and the network likely attract a similar audience, making the pairing a good fit for CNBC, says one syndication executive.

“CNBC probably felt that its own brand exists in the same space as the 60 Minutes brand, and in that space, 60 Minutes would be viewed as something positive and special. I would subscribe to that,” the executive said.

Other cable networks are buying unscripted shows to help them build their brands. In April, truTV acquired ABC’s summer reality show Wipeout, which features competitors taking on wildly challenging obstacle courses as viewers hope to see them crash and burn (or more often, get soaked). The program joins truTV’s lineup of original programming, including Operation Repo, Hardcore Pawn, All Worked Up and Lizard Lick Towing.

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