Major Off-Net Deal For Law & Order: Criminal Intent

NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution has sold off-network episodes of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent to the Fox-owned stations as a Monday-Friday strip for next fall, B&C has learned.

The straight 50-50 barter deal for the procedural crime drama in its sixth season on NBC, with an ensemble cast including Chris Noth and Vincent D’Onofrio, marks the first time in years that a major off-net hour has been offered to stations for weekday runs.

NBC U is shopping the show to other station groups after preparing for months to take it into the market. Fox has acquired it for its New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major market outlets under a multi-year agreement.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, shows like Magnum, PI, Quincy and 21 Jump Street were staples of weekday broadcast syndication. But since then big off-net dramas like CI have been sold as strips to basic cable networks and to stations for straight barter on weekends (The WB netlet briefly aired off-net ER episodes earlier this year in its 3-5 p.m. weekday block before returning to comedies).

As with top off-net sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, CI may wind up airing in the same broadcast and cable time periods in some mid- and small-level markets. It will continue running on NBC U’s USA and Bravo networks next fall.

USA strips the show at 7 p.m. 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, which 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, significant profit participants like Wolf stand to benefit by attracting revenue from premium national advertisers if CI performs as well in broadcast as the franchise has on cable and NBC.

The launch of the sales campaign coincides with improved ratings for CI this fall in its new 9 p.m. Tuesday network time period. It has been averaging 11.5 million viewers, finishing up 39% in adults 18-49 and 25-54 over last season.

After years of non-starters, station demand could run high for a top off-net strip generating network demos in the 5-7 range.

There are negatives to consider too, with one-hour dramas having repeated poorly in the past on weekday afternoons, when viewers lead busy lives and are hesitant to invest time in a drama that demands attention.

But Barry Wallach, NBC U’s domestic syndication president, is confident the strong repeat performance of the L&O franchise shows on cable will set it apart on stations.

“I think this type of show will work in broadcast,” he says. “Local stations are going to schedule this in time periods that make sense, with lots of viewership.”

Syndication success could pave the way for other program distributors to follow NBC U’s lead. But that could take time, since there are more serialized shows now with poor rerun potential than highly rated, closed-ended hour dramas like L&O and CSI.

Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for the Fox O&Os, intends to try out CI in a variety of time periods on his stations, presumably in early and late fringe.

Fox has been in the hunt for a short supply of top-tier programming since the last two big off-net sitcoms, Two and a Half Men and Family Guy, went earlier this year to Tribune in the top markets.

“We have a lot of shelf space to fill in our duopoly markets,” he 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.”