It's no wonder that the Fox stations moved fast to snag Law & Order: Criminal Intent for fall 2007. With new first-run syndicated shows struggling to find an audience and few original offerings available for next autumn, the Dick Wolf series was extremely desirable.
The deal, hammered out by Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for the Fox Television Stations, and NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, marked the first time in more than a decade that a major off-net crime hour was offered to stations as a Monday-Friday strip.
After grabbing CI for his major-market outlets, including New York and Los Angeles, under a multiyear, 50-50 barter arrangement, Cicha says Fox's goal is to run the show in higher-profile weekday time periods. But he's also open to carrying it in daytime in some markets if he's lacking first-run fare. Cicha calls Dick Wolf's procedural crime drama, in its sixth season on NBC and featuring Chris Noth and Vincent D'Onofrio, a “great safety net.”
After closing the deal, NBCU turned its attention to shopping CI to other station groups. It's the first time since the late 1980s and early '90s, when shows like 21 Jump Street and Magnum, P.I. were syndication staples, that hour crime dramas will air in weekday broadcast syndication.
Since then, the bigger off-net dramas have been sold as strips to basic cable networks and to stations for straight barter on weekends. USA strips CI at 7 p.m. ET weekdays, where it averages a 1.4 household rating and 1.3 million viewers. Bravo gets the weekend run, airing it after 6 p.m. on Sundays with an average 0.7 rating.
The newly shared cable-broadcast window, encompassing one run per day, could help ease the financial burden on USA. The network had paid most of the combined license fee of nearly $2 million per episode since CI began its off-net run last fall.
While USA gets to see its programming costs shrink, profit participants like Wolf stand to benefit by attracting revenue from premium national advertisers if CI performs as well in broadcast syndication as the franchise has on NBC and cable. Stations are likely to be drawn to a show that attracts healthy network demos. But hour dramas repeat poorly in afternoons, when viewers are hesitant to invest time in a plot-driven program that demands their attention.
“I think this type of show will work in broadcast,” says Barry Wallach, NBC-domestic syndication president. “Local stations are going to schedule this in time periods that make sense.”
Wallach emphasizes that the L&O franchise has been a cable goldmine. If CI performs well for stations, it could pave the way for other program distributors to follow NBCU's lead.
But that could take time, since there are more serialized shows now with weak rerun potential.
Cicha will presumably play CI mostly in early- and late-fringe slots. Fox has been in the hunt for top-tier programming since the last two big off-net sitcoms, Two and a Half Men and Family Guy, went to Tribune in the top markets.
“We have a lot of shelf space to fill in our duopoly markets,” Cicha says. “This is a real good opportunity to stay contemporary … under a deal structure that is far less risky than what may have been out there recently. The time is right for a quality show like this to come in and perform.”