TNT wins ‘Trace’ race

Bidding war with USA, Lifetime drives up price

NEW YORK — Warner Bros. Domestic Cable has sold reruns of its hit CBS series “Without a Trace” in an exclusive cable window to TNT for a strapping $1.35 million an episode — the highest price TNT has ever paid for an off-network series.

Spirited bidding by at least two of TNT’s cable-network rivals, USA and Lifetime, drove up the price. Cable veterans say that only two other rerun hours have fetched bigger bucks: King World’s “CSI,” which will pocket $1.6 million an hour from Spike TV, and Universal’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which went to USA for about $1.55 million.

As with “CSI” and “SVU,” the license fee being shouldered by TNT for “Trace” covers more than the five-a-week plays, which become available to the network in the fall of 2006. TNT will also get a once-a-week play of “Trace” beginning in fall 2004, simultaneous with its primetime run on CBS.

Steve Koonin, exec veepee of TNT and TBS, declined to discuss license fees but said he plans to play a number of “Trace” runs in primetime starting in fall 2006, possibly stacking them in a block from 7 to 11 p.m. on one or two nights rather than stripping them across five nights at 8 or 9 o’clock.

The only restriction Warner Bros. has placed on TNT’s scheduling of “Trace” is that the show can’t run directly against the CBS network play.

Self-contained skein

“Trace” is considered a potential powerhouse in cable reruns because each hour is self-contained: There are no subplots or B stories that carry over into multiple episodes, forcing an announcer to precede each edition with a quick recap of unresolved story threads.

The main example of a show that’s free of the kind of slopover plots that discourage rerun viewing is the original “Law & Order” series. By scheduling as many as 20 hours a week of “Law & Order” episodes, TNT has vaulted to become the No. 1-rated cable network in primetime among total viewers and in the key demographics of adults 18-49 and 25-54.

There are plenty of “Law & Order” reruns because Universal has commissioned more than 300 episodes of the show from creator-executive producer Dick Wolf. “Law & Order” is still racking up such strong ratings in its original primetime run on NBC that Wolf could end up producing another couple of hundred hours before the show finally runs out of Nielsen gas.

Pleasant surprise

And “Without a Trace,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (who also does “CSI”), has become a pleasant surprise to CBS in what looked like an impossible time period, Thursday at 10, opposite the powerhouse “ER.” “Trace,” helped enormously by its “CSI” lead-in, actually held its own against “ER” during the 2002-03 season, its first.

And last summer, “Trace” reruns began beating “ER” reruns in the Nielsens, catching the eye of cable networks searching for a series with potential long-term staying power. Although “ER” has jumped back to No. 1 in the new season, “Trace” has narrowed the gap, giving “ER” more competition than any other show since it began on NBC in September 1994.

Dealing with the New York office of the FBI’s missing-persons squad, “Trace” stars Anthony LaPaglia, Poppy Montgomery and Eric Close.

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