Cable's Off-Net Bounty

The cable world's still going badda-bing over the record $2.5 million an episode A&E plunked down to pick up The Sopranos, slated for fall 2006. But the network has more- immediate plans. Serialized 24, for which A&E paid a more modest price of around $250,000 an episode, begins this fall, slated to air in daytime and likely one night a week in prime. These are only two examples of how important quality off-net shows have become as cable networks pump dough into originals.

Paying top dollar for off-nets is “something of an insurance policy” to secure a lead-in for an original that otherwise might go unnoticed, says Bob DeBitetto, newly named executive VP/general manager of A&E. “It's pre-sold viewership. You can predict with a reasonable margin of error what your delivery will be.” A&E's third major recent drama acquisition, CSI: Miami (more than $1 million an episode) begins in the fall of 2006.

Lifetime will also soon boost its off-net schedule; Will & Grace starts in September. Already syndication-strong with Golden Girls and The Nanny, the women's network scooped up the gay comedy for around $450,000 an episode. It will be stripped weekdays in daytime and in late fringe; on weekends, it will be a lead-in to movies.

With Frasier (at a hefty $600,000 an episode) joining its slate next March, followed by Reba in August and Still Standing in September, Lifetime could emerge with a comedy block to rival Turner's TBS. It is hunting for dramas as well. “We're in good shape. These comedies will freshen our schedule,” says Lifetime's Leslie Glenn-Chesloff, senior VP, planning, scheduling and acquisitions.

And FX has upcoming comedies as well: That '70s Show bows in a “high-profile time period” in September, and Spin City comes to daytime. Rather than building a comedy block, though, the network focuses acquisition more on movies, says Senior VP of Programming Chuck Saftler.

Proving it has more syndie hits than just Law & Order, Turner's TNT debuts Alias this fall, having paid what turned out to be a bargain $200,000 or so an episode given its renewed popularity on ABC.

The drama market is quiet now. Paramount is pushing Enterprise, and The WB wants to sell Everwood, but no one is bidding. On the comedy side, Buena Vista has received lackluster offers for Scrubs. (A Buena Vista representative says this is not true and that the syndicator has received multiple offers on the show.) A cable-network source says Fox might soon push Arrested Development as a direct-to-cable deal.

Generally, though, this cable pro says, the syndie market is filling with “B-minus programs” but “not brand drivers.”