Echoing their primetime network performance, procedural dramas are burning up the off-net drama ratings charts.
In its first year in syndication, CBS's CSI: New York is mimicking the success of its forebears, CSI and CSI: Miami, and leading the pack in off-net weekly hours. In the week ending Oct. 19, CSI: New York scored a 3.2 live-plus-same-day average household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research, beating NBC Universal's sophomore Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is also a steady performer both in primetime and in syndication. During the same week, Law & Order: SVU averaged a 2.7.
CSI: New York's syndicated success is mimicked in primetime, where the show is up 13% in viewers and 5% among adults 18-49 on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Tied for third place are CSI: Miami, the top off-net weekly hour for the past two years, and NBC Universal's rookie House, each coming in at a 2.2. CSI: Miami declined this year after CBS Television Distribution elected to push the show back an hour—most stations run off-net dramas on weekends in late fringe—in order to give CSI: New York a fair shake.
CSI and CSI: Miami began their syndicated lives as once-a-week runs on cable networks Spike and A&E, which paid $1.9 million and $1 million-plus per episode for each show, respectively. After those two years were up, both shows were supposed to go back to airing on cable only, but CTD convinced A&E to change that deal.
This year, however, CBS Television Distribution renegotiated CSI: Miami’s deal with A&E, allowing both CSI: New York and CSI: Miami to air in weekend broadcast syndication while being stripped on the cable networks, says CTD President John Nogawski. “[Renegotiating that deal] has turned out to be really fantastic for us,” he says.
NBCU has also been able to turn its popular procedurals into revenue-raisers on multiple platforms. Next year, Law & Order: SVU will follow in the footsteps of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and premiere as an afternoon strip on broadcast stations. The show is already cleared in 93% of the country, says Sean O'Boyle, NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution's executive VP and general sales manager. Whether Law & Order: CI will return as a strip next fall remains undecided, O'Boyle says.
While other syndication chiefs acknowledge that stripping off-net procedurals is a good idea, it's not always financially feasible. Because NBCU produces both Law & Order shows and also owns USA Network, on which both shows air, NBCU was able to negotiate a cost-sharing arrangement that allows it to offer both shows to TV stations as strips.
“When you buy an off-net program, you are buying the audience that is built in on primetime,” O'Boyle says. “The key to these dramas is the fact that they are procedural. A case or a medical mystery gets resolved in every one.”
House, the sixth-highest-rated program in primetime among adults 18-49, isn't a typical crime procedural like CSI or Law & Order, but its medical mysteries allow viewers to get some resolution while enjoying Hugh Laurie's depiction of a gruff but brilliant diagnostician and the show's dark sense of humor. “Other than Two and a Half Men, House had the best repeat retention of any show on primetime this past summer,” O'Boyle says.
Even Twentieth's Boston Legal and NBCU's Monk, holding their own in a fourth-place tie at 1.9, are procedurals in their way. Boston Legal completes a case or two each week, while Monk goes through his quirky paces to get his man.
Meanwhile, Disney-ABC's rookie serials Desperate Housewives and Lost premiered a bit lower, with Housewives holding at 1.5 and Lost steady at 1.1.