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Crime Pays

For many viewers, there are few guilty pleasures as satisfying as watching a favorite episode of a drama series repeated on cable.

That viewer loyalty is giving crime shows a big boost, driving cable networks’ brand-building strategy and sparking bidding wars for the hottest off-network shows like never before. Consider: USA Network won its second consecutive title as the highest-rated basic-cable network based largely on popularity of drama series that have already aired on other networks.

USA’s acquisitions of such series as NCIS have played as much of a role in the ratings success as top-rated original scripted shows Burn Notice and freshman series Royal Pains. Indeed, on a 24-hour basis, the naval crime drama’s reruns averaged more viewers than Burn Notice, the second most-watched original series on cable.

Today, one-hour broadcast network procedural shows like NCIS, Ghost Whisperer, Criminal Minds and the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise on networks like USA, Syfy, A&E Network and Spike TV, respectively, provide a consistent and often huge audience for their networks, while providing a great lead-in to a network’s core, primetime original content.

Off-network procedural crime dramas have been a staple of ad-supported cable-network lineups since the beginning of the medium. While off-network comedies and theatrical movies have also performed well on cable networks, executives say it’s the one-hour drama series genre that’s been consistently driving viewership throughout the programming day.

These days, crime pays. Some say the reason for the popularity of police procedurals is that that viewers are more desensitized to darker and more graphic content because it’s not far off from crimes reported in detail on the Internet or on news shows. Others say the programs turn more on crisp writing and clever plot twists — all wrapped up in an hour, with justice (usually) meted out.

Such closed-ended storylines hold up well over numerous repeat telecasts, allow networks to frequently schedule episodes throughout the network’s lineup.

Whatever the reason, the importance of such shows is what led USA late last year to pay a reportedly unprecedented $2.3 million per episode for CBS’s freshman series NCIS: Los Angeles — and last week to ante up around $500,000 an episode to wrestle CSI: Crime Scene Investigation from Spike TV — as well as for TNT to pay more than $2 million for the rights to CBS’ sophomore show The Mentalist in late 2009.

Cable-network executives said that such shows are essential to building a brand that’s worthy of falling within the upper echelon of top-rated cable networks.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of an acquired series to a cable network in terms of its brand affirmation,” said Michael Wright, executive vice president and head of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM. “To be able to strip a series that does well for you can lift not just a night, but an entire week. It’s hugely important.”

For USA, such shows account for 62% of the primetime programming schedule, while syndicated procedurals represent 34% of Spike TV’s programming lineup, according to the networks. Off-network procedurals comprised 33% of TNT’s 2009 schedule.

“These shows have a simplicity to the storytelling — they’re not highly serialized and viewers can surf in and in five minutes understand what this show is going to be about,” said A&E president and general manager Robert DeBitetto. “These franchises are very user friendly, repeat very well and appeal to a huge segment of the television viewing audience who just loves one-hour crime dramas.”

As a result, networks in recent years dished out big bucks for several highly rated procedurals. In the mid-2000s, as more cable networks looked to reach mainstream audiences, shows such as CSI: New York (Spike TV) and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (USA Network/Bravo) drew deals around the $2 million-an-episode mark.

Procedurals like Law & Order are often stripped across the weekly primetime schedule to draw viewers to the network, said USA executive vice president of programming, acquisitions and scheduling Jane Blaney.

“We anticipate and count on it having a life in primetime from anywhere from three to five years,” Blaney said. “When we buy a show, we have to have the confidence that it will fit into our brand — that we have enough confidence that it will maintain the ratings bar we need on a day in and day out basis for five years in primetime.”

It’s not uncommon to see these shows run four or five nights a week in the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. timeslot to help lead the audience into primetime, DiBitetto added. For A&E, off-network acquisitions such as Criminal Minds and CSI: Miami — which account for 30% of the network’s programming — helped it boost its primetime rating by 9% in 2009, to 1.3 million viewers.

“We’ve been fortunate to have gone into the marketplace and acquired a couple of franchises over the past few years that have proven to have great legs and durability and have become part of the overall scheduling and programming strategy,” DiBitetto said.

Criminal Minds and CSI: Miami also deliver to A&E a loyal target audience of 25-to-54-year-olds who will follow such shows from broadcast to cable. “You don’t have to hope the show works; you kind of basically almost predict with a reasonable amount of certainly that a good percentage of that audience from [the broadcast networks] is going to come over to your network,” DiBitetto said.

Since January 2008, NCIS has been that kind of franchise for USA. The series, starring Mark Harmon, averaged 3.0 million viewers in primetime in 2009, according to Disney-ABC Television’s Nielsen analysis.

On a 24-hour basis, the show was USA’s top-rated series, averaging 2.8 million viewers over more than 1,270 episode runs, according to Nielsen. By contrast, Burn Notice and Royal Pains both averaged 1.7 million viewers over 121 and 283 episodes aired, respectively. (The majority of NCIS episodes aired in better time slots than repeats of Burn Notice and Royal Pains, however.)

Still, NCIS has quietly proven to be a major audience draw for the network. “NCIS has been such a huge show for them and is one of the reasons why USA is the number one cable network,” said Scott Koondel, president of distribution for CBS Television Distribution, which licenses NCIS (USA), Criminal Minds (A&E), CSI (Spike); CSI: Miami (A&E); and Ghost Whisperer (Syfy).

Such shows also provide great lead-ins for a network’s original series. DiBitetto said in the past two years the network has used marathons of CSI: Miami to launch original shows like its popular reality series Gene Simmons Family Jewels.

“We just put Criminal Minds into the fall schedule, but I can very well see that when it comes to launching or next scripted drama I can very well envision that we will use a very aggressive marathoning of Criminal Minds as a launch pad for that show,” said DiBitetto. “Although it won’t be right for every show, [off-net procedurals] can play a real big part in launching a nonfiction show, as well as a scripted drama.”

USA’s Blaney said the NCIS lead-in to Burn Notice last summer helped the action spy series’ first-run episodes draw 7 million viewers this past summer. She added that Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will most likely serve as the lead into new episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, while House will head into several original series in 2010.

For TNT, the acquired series Law & Order became a model for creating and developing its original scripted shows. In 2005, the network developed The Closer, cable’s most-watched series, in the vein of Law & Order in an effort to transition viewers from the off-network hit to an original series, TNT’s Wright.

“When we developed The Closer and were meeting with talent agencies and writers, part of our dialogue with them was that we’re looking for a show that Law & Order fans would recognize and be drawn to, but have its own voice and be distinctive,” he said. “We were developing to an acquired series that was one of the most defining shows on the network in Law & Order, so it made perfect sense to say that if we were going to get into the original series business it should be compatible with that show so those viewers want to stick around and watch it.”

With few drama procedurals on the horizon, USA and TNT aggressively pursued the two biggest titles on the market: NCIS: Los Angeles and The Mentalist. The result: two of the most lucrative deals ever reached for syndicated procedurals. NCIS: Los Angeles, an NCIS spinoff starring LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell, drew a reported $2.3 million from USA and will debut on the “Characters Welcome” network beginning in fall 2013.

It’s very unusual for a freshman show like NCIS: Los Angeles to hit the syndicated marketplace so early, as series distributors usually wait until a show has three to four years and more than 80 episodes under its belt before testing the syndication marketplace. Yet with few marquee procedurals headed into the off-network market over the next few years, Blaney said USA decided to take an unusual risk and secure rights to the show before its competitors could.

“We certainly have a track record with NCIS, and with less procedural shows being produced that are successful, it was going to command a higher price tag,” she said. “It’s all about supply and demand.”

For NCIS: LA distributor CBS Television Distribution, the timing was perfect. “When you have a show like [NCIS: LA] it’s very easy for USA to buy that show and keep their competitors like TNT from getting it,” said CTD’s Koondel.

TNT found its own syndicated hit in The Mentalist, starring Simon Baker as a mentalist turned private investigator. It paid a reported $2.2 million for the sophomore series which will debut on the drama network in fall 2011.

The Mentalist is wonderfully on brand for us it is a character based, really entertaining, smartly crafted procedural drama that feels very consistent with some of our own shows,” said Wright. “Both NCIS and The Mentalist happened to be shows that met all the criteria — they were on-brand, they were closed-ended procedurals and [they were] strippable.”

But not everyone is convinced of the value of syndicated procedural programming. FX has decided to eschew off-network fare and build its brand on original series and acquired movies. FX president John Landgraf believes that off-network dramas skew older and don’t deliver new and younger audiences to the table.

“One of the challenges with off-net dramas is they actually don’t bring in new audiences that tend to be older, and the ones they do tend to [age] the network one year older every year [they’re] on the air,” said FX’s Landgraf, who is targeting the 18-to-49 demographic. “I think those channels make those off-networks work because they have a long history of offering off-net dramas and FX does not have that history.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.