Cable’s costly cops

Despite pricey license fee, 'CI' proves its worth for USA, Bravo

Even in its third incarnation, the “Law & Order” train isn’t showing signs of slowing down.

USA and Bravo ponied up a hefty $1.92 million-per-episode license fee — a basic-cable high at the time — for an exclusive split window to “Criminal Intent,” the third edition in the franchise.

While some TV execs raised their eyebrows at the final pricetag — “I admit I didn’t feel pressed to get in on that,” fessed up one acquisitions exec — “CI” has already proven its worth on USA.

“The importance of ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ to our studio cannot be overstated. Dick Wolf, Rene Balcer and the rest of the writing staff continue to keep the storylines sophisticated, intriguing and surprising. They have set a creative standard in this drama that appeals to millions of fans both here and abroad,” says Angela Bromstad, president, NBC Universal Television Studio.

Show already has helped vault the general entertainment cabler to the top spot in viewers and all key demos for the fourth quarter — a feat USA hadn’t achieved in several years.

And during the first week in January, a weeknight stack of “CI” scored USA its highest ratings on a Thursday in two years among adults 25-54. Trio of back-to-back episodes averaged a healthy 1.6 million viewers in the demo and 1.4 million adults 18-49. Bravo also has seen a ratings boost from the series, which debuted on both USA and the pop culture cabler in September 2005.

Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television, which reps hundreds of TV stations, says that “CI” offers some distinct elements from its predecessors that keep the aging franchise fresh for audiences.

“Yes, it’s a procedural like the other two, but at the center of ‘Criminal Intent’ is a brooding Columbo-type. (Lead thesp Vincent D’Onofrio) is a sort of Sherlock Homes to guide you through the crimes,” Carroll says. “Clearly, viewers think it separates it from simply being another ‘Law & Order’ format.”

“CI” also welcomed “Law & Order” alum and crowd fave Chris Noth last year when D’Onofrio reduced his workload to just half a season.

And aging or not, the “Law & Order” brand is pre-sold marketing to viewers, Carroll says.

“It’s pedigree,” he says. “There aren’t shows like that coming down the pike. You know exactly what you’re getting with ‘Law & Order,’ and it’s top quality, whether you’re a procedural fan or not.”

Many say off-net deal reps the benefits of synergy; USA and Bravo parent NBC Universal produces the show.

But USA senior VP of programming acquisitions Jane Blaney says no one can think they got a price break.

“It reached that amount because other networks were seriously interested. We weren’t just handed the property by (distributor NBC U Cable Distribution),” Blaney says.

USA also paid top dollar for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” at $1.4 million per episode. Only HBO mob drama “The Sopranos” fetched more coin — a reported $2.5 million per episode from top bidder A&E.

Blaney says that both networks, which have four-year agreements with options for future cycles, benefit greatly from the advertising coin already drawn by “CI.”

Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP of Chicago-based media buyer Starcom Entertainment, says advertisers aren’t miffed by multiple editions of “Law & Order,” an exclusivity issue that would ordinarily leave buyers cold.

“Sure, it doesn’t look sexy on a ‘buy’ list, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem at all with clients,” she says. “The franchise still delivers eyeballs and meets its guarantees. Unlike other off-net shows on basic cable, ‘Law & Order’ hasn’t diminished. It’s kind of like ‘Golden Girls’ on Lifetime — there’s no loss in popularity there.”

And unlike the other franchise du jour, “CSI,” the “CI” skein is a lot more palatable to advertisers that tend to avoid the graphic violence in other procedurals.

“Some advertisers shy away from ‘CSI’ and even ‘Law & Order: SVU’ because of some of the content. A benefit to ‘CI’ is that it doesn’t go that far in terms of being too graphic or too risque,” Caraccioli-Davis adds.

Bottom line: “The mothership has been on NBC for well over a decade. ‘CSI’ is a younger show, but the last installment (‘CSI: NY’) hasn’t held a candle to ‘CI.’ We felt pretty confident in spending what we did for the show,” says Blaney.

The “Law & Order” franchise has, in fact, grown stronger since its cable debut on A&E years ago.

“No one wanted it back then because it was deemed too old. But Turner saw something in it, wrestled it away from A&E, ran the sprockets of it, and now nothing can stop it,” she says. “USA is in a pretty nice position to have both ‘SVU’ and ‘CI’ on our lineup.”

And execs aren’t concerned with criticism of “Law & Order” overrunning the cabler either.

“We strike a pretty good balance, with WWE, sports, and our originals like ‘Monk’ and ‘The 4400,’ ” she says. “I don’t think anyone would call us the ‘Law & Order’ network — not that that would be a bad thing.”

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