Wolf pack leads cable with ‘Law & Order’

Skeins repped 20% of the top 50 shows in September

Don’t tell Dick Wolf that 35 hours a week of “Law & Order” and its “Special Victims Unit” spinoff on TNT and USA is wretchedly excessive and may finally slaughter the goose extruding the golden eggs.

All those reruns “are just driving viewers’ hunger to see the new episodes on NBC,” says Wolf, the creator of “Law & Order” and its “SVU” and “Criminal Intent” spinoffs. “It’s synergy at its best — I’d like to see 60 hours of ‘Law & Order’ and ‘SVU’ on cable every week.”

So would TNT and USA, which have parlayed their weekly “L&O” marathons into mass-audience nirvana. The scheduling of up to 20 hours a week of “L&O” is the main reason why TNT has placed a hammerlock on the primetime ratings in cable in 2003, soaring to No. 1 in total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

In a can-you-top-this display of Nielsen dominance by adult-oriented programming, an unprecedented 20% of the top 50 shows on basic cable for the month of September were “L&O” episodes on TNT. The Sept. 1 episode at 8 p.m. pulled in 1.56 million total viewers, making it the most-watched “L&O” hour in the history of basic cable.

And since USA has starting running 14 hours a week of “SVU” in mid-September, the network has outperformed its nighttime average (7 p.m. to midnight) by 36% in households and by 37% in both adults 18-49 and 25-54.

These numbers have sales execs for Universal Television, distributor of “L&O,” imagining giant dollar signs when they contemplate the amount of money they could rack up from cable for “Criminal Intent” when it goes into the rerun marketplace next year.

Industry observers say “CI” could beat the previous record holder, King World’s “CSI,” which fetched $1.6 million an episode from TNN (now Spike). USA is paying a total of $1.55 million an hour for “SVU,” which encompasses $1.3 million for the reruns and $250,000 for the “repurposing” of the NBC play five days later on Sunday at 11 p.m.

TNT picked up “L&O” for what now looks like a steal but was the marketplace price in 1999, when the deal was struck — $700,000 an hour for the episodes produced from season 10 to the present and only $250,000 an hour for the first 181 episodes, which had played in rerun continuously for eight years on A&E, as many as four times a day.

Will all of the TNT and USA runs cannibalize the audience for the original episodes on NBC, causing a drop-off in the network’s ratings? Au contraire, says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, who points to the rating of the season premiere of “L&O” on Sept. 24, which harvested 20.9 million viewers. Season opener was the most watched since the show moved to Wednesday 11 years ago.

Bob Thompson, head of media studies at Syracuse U., traces the astonishing success of “L&O” and its spinoffs to “the stripped-down quality of the form. The shows are not dependent on the complex development of characters: Viewers don’t have to bring anything to the table.”

Unlike most hourlong melodramas, the reruns of “L&O” draw sizable audiences because plot is everything: All of the episodes are self-contained, says Michele cq Ganeless cq, exec VP-general manager of USA. “There are no loose threads,” she says, “no continuing character arcs that stretch over multiple episodes,” requiring an announcer to precede each new hour with a hasty, unsatisfactory recap of some of the secondary plots left unresolved in earlier episodes.

Another reason why “L&O” may not wear itself out with overuse, says Steve Koonin cq, exec VP-chief operating officer of TNT and TBS, is that there are more than 300 episodes in the can.

So even if TNT schedules 19 hours a week, its current pace, for 52 weeks a year, that still means viewers will stumble across most of the episodes no more than three times during the 12-month period — a number well short of oversaturation.

Which is music to Dick Wolf’s ears. But when asked if he’d cheerlead for a 24-hour cable network devoted only to “L&O” and its spinoffs, even Wolf says that might be a bit much.

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