NEW YORK — The TV industry is still reverberating over the record price ponied up by A&E 10 days ago for reruns of “The Sopranos,” so much so that another edgy contemporary melodrama, “The Shield,” has quickly popped up as the first series to try to seize upon the post-“Sopranos” momentum.
Sony Pictures TV, which distributes “The Shield,” declined to comment on its plans, but the company is drawing up a sales blueprint that will highlight the show’s mostly glowing critical notices, its strong appeal to the highly coveted men 18-to-49 demo, and the Emmy award for actor pocketed by lead Michael Chiklis, the first time a cable network has ever captured that prize.
The demand by general-entertainment cable networks for well-regarded off-network hours has led to a spate of deals over the past year in which license-fee records seemed to be set every other week. Before A&E forked over $2.5 million an episode for “Sopranos,” the previous high was USA/Bravo’s joint $1.92 million an hour bid for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
Other recent deals that have enriched their distributors by well over $1 million per include Spike’s pickup of King World’s “CSI: New York,” TNT’s purchase of the Warner Bros. series “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace,” and A&E’s buy of KW’s “CSI: Miami.”
But “Sopranos” has raised the bar into the stratosphere, and Sony plans to take advantage of the escalating marketplace. The company is hoping that the appetite for a show such as “The Shield” will easily offset the disappointing ratings it delivered during its third season on FX, when its numbers fell by an average of 24% among total viewers and the three key demo categories (adults 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54).
A spokesman for FX said one of the problems was that the third season of 15 original episodes didn’t kick off until March 9, 2004, more than 11 months after the showing of last episode of the second season (April 1, 2003).
The gap between the third and fourth season, which begins March 15, comes to only nine months, and Sony and FX are planning to engineer a big promotion push to highlight the signing of Glenn Close as a regular.
Sony is still working out its game plan for reruns of “The Shield,” but 67 episodes should be available for rerun play beginning in September 2006, on the premise that FX will renew the series for a fifth season. Sony will ask the winning bidder to buy any episodes beyond the 67, which FX will almost certainly commission if the series continues to perform in the Nielsens.
The networks expected to get “The Shield” pitch from Sony — in addition, of course, to FX itself — are A&E, TNT, USA, Court TV and Spike.
One issue that’s sure to come up is the perception that “The Shield” is inextricably linked to the successful branding of FX; one of its basic-cable-network rivals may be unwilling to serve as the equivalent of a rerun farm system.
“(The Shield) is so identified with the emergence of FX that Sony may have to really scramble to find another cable outlet for the show,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, a rep firm.
That potential hurdle was less of a problem for HBO’s “Sopranos” because a pay-TV network operates in a different universe from that of a basic-cable channel. Subscribers have to pay extra monthly fees for HBO, which doesn’t accept advertising, and which reaches typically less than a third of the audience that gets a basic network like A&E.
One potential buyer said a network such as Spike, which competes directly with FX because both target young males, may be hesitant to buy “Shield.” Networks hate to confuse their viewers, which could happen if Spike were scheduling a “Shield” rerun while FX was playing an original episode. By contrast, the programming of a network like Court TV doesn’t have all that much in common with FX.
Unlike “Sopranos,” which HBO will have to edit for A&E’s advertisers and viewers, reruns of “Shield” may be able to run intact since it has already been proved on FX that advertisers will buy spots despite occasional violent scenes that make no concessions to the sensitivities of the audience.
Sony doesn’t plan to pitch “The Shield” to ABC Family.