Crime Pays, Again and Again

Law & Order, CSI and their offshoots get top dollar on cable
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Rival cable channels TNT, USA Network, A&E and Spike TV share an unusual bond: Each boasts a syndicated crime-solving series that powers ratings and serves as a prime promotional platform. Only two franchises have such a golden touch: Jerry Bruckheimer's slick forensic trio of CSI series and Dick Wolf's Law & Order and its spinoffs. And cable networks pay handsomely for them.

Law & Order and its sister shows, Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent, and CSI and its spinoffs, Miami and New York, serve multiple purposes for the networks. “You can use it as a lead-in for originals, you can stack it for a solid night, or you can scatter it to fill holes in your schedule,” says USA Network President Bonnie Hammer. Both franchises, she adds, “are so dependable and so repeatable.”

The six shows are self-contained, with episodes whose stories wrap up at the end of the hour, allowing casual viewers to tune in occasionally without missing key plot developments. Many network dramas, such as The West Wing and Lost, build up storylines over the course of a season; a viewer who misses an episode could be lost for the rest of the season.

The veteran of the stand-out crop, the original Law & Order, runs on TNT and is cable's top-rated program. So far this year, the show is averaging 3.4 million viewers for its play weeknights at 9 p.m. ET. Its 10 p.m. showings average a hearty 2.8 million viewers.

Law & Order: SVU is equally attractive on USA Network, notching 3 million viewers on Wednesdays and 2.7 million on Fridays. USA should get an additional ratings bounce this fall, when it adds full syndication rights to Law & Order: Criminal Intent to its schedule. (It will share the show with Bravo; both are owned by NBC Universal, which also produces the series.) USA pays about $1.5 million per episode for SVU, and CI will fetch close to $2 million.

CSI, which premiered on CBS in 2000, is a newer franchise but is similarly catching fire on cable. The deal was struck when Spike was general-entertainment channel The National Network and committed a hefty $1.6 million per episode. Before its cable debut, some industry execs doubted that CSI—which delivers an older and more female audience on CBS—would fill its potential, because Spike is geared toward young men. But Spike's prime time ratings soared last September when it added nightly plays of CSI, which averages 2.6 million viewers.

Ratings have improved all year, as more viewers find the show, says Executive VP of Programming and Production Kevin Kay. “Our challenge is to capitalize on the numbers and put things behind CSI that take advantage of it,” he says. That's working well enough that Spike bought a second round. CSI: New York arrives in fall 2007 and will command $1.9 million per episode.

That makes A&E's deal for CSI: Miami, at $1 million per episode, look like a steal. The second CSI joins A&E's schedule this fall and will be a relief: The network has not had a monster syndicated show since it let Law & Order go to TNT in 2001. A&E paid a meager $150,000 per episode for Law & Order, then its highest-rated show. The network balked at a price increase, and TNT swooped in, paying about $800,000 per episode for new shows and $250,000 for episodes that A&E had previously aired.

After losing Law & Order, A&E tried to plug its schedule with programs like Third Watch and Crossing Jordan. But both are serialized—and second-tier shows on broadcast to boot. A&E needed a workhorse, and got one in CSI: Miami. “It is a top performer on broadcast with tight, procedural storytelling and a star [in David Caruso],” says Bob DeBitetto, A&E executive VP/general manager.

“It Won't Be Wallpapered”

Another difference, DeBitetto says, is that A&E now has a deeper bench of originals and has purchased off-net dramas 24 and The Sopranos, lessening its dependence on CSI: Miami. “It will be an important player in our arsenal,” he says, “but it won't be as wallpapered as Law & Order.”

With three series in each franchise, proliferation is not slowing success. In fact, TNT Executive VP/COO Steve Koonin says Law & Order fans are more numerous than ever: Network research shows that, in 2001, 39 million people said they watched at least one episode a month. Four years later, he says, 49 million declared themselves fans of Law & Order. He expects CSI is enjoying similar growth: “As the pool expands, the number of people coming to watch it is much greater. That's why these hit shows can make such a difference.”

Still, network executives, wary of overexposing their prized shows, fret over how to play them. TNT carefully monitors how individual Law & Order episodes perform, and will rest shows when it sees fit. The network also painstakingly selects which episodes lead in to its original dramas The Closer and Wanted. Says Koonin, “When you spend all this money, you need to know how to manage the asset.”

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