‘Trace’ slumps on TNT

Network depending on show for syndication

“Without a Trace” has failed to score with mass audiences in its reruns on TNT, upping anxiety at cable networks that rely on off-net police procedurals.

Fifteen months ago, TNT was expressing concern about the ratings slump experienced by the granddaddy of these investigative series, “Law & Order,” which was running as many as 14 times a week on the network (Daily Variety, March 15, 2006). Steve Koonin, prexy of Turner Entertainment Networks, said at the time that he was counting on multiple weekly runs of “Trace” to take some of the pressure off “L&O.”

TNT already had limited experience with “Trace.” Scheduled as a once-a-week latenight rerun from December 2004 to May 2006, “Trace” averaged a solid 2.2 million viewers. But one nagging indicator that the series might be vulnerable was that half the aud was over the age of 50.

Sure enough, when “Trace” began running every weeknight at 7 in June 2006, it didn’t perform as well, on average, in total viewers (1.73 million). Even worse, a disturbing 60% of its viewers were older than 50. “Trace” actually underperformed “Law & Order,” the previous occupant of the time period, in total viewers and in the three key demos of adults 18-34, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

One problem outside TNT’s control was that at 7 p.m., a popular time period for police-procedural repeats, “Trace” was regularly going up against “CSI” on Spike, “L&O: SVU” and “L&O: Criminal Intent” on USA and “CSI: Miami” on A&E.

To potentially replace “Without a Trace,” TNT will be able to start skedding multiple weekly runs of CBS’ Sunday series “Cold Case” in the fall. But in its current once-a-week slotting (at 11 p.m., although not necessarily the same night each week), “Cold Case” has slipped by 33% in total viewers during the course of a year (December 2006 to June of this vs. a year earlier), falling by similar hefty percentages in the key demos.

The industry is citing the declining fortunes of off-network procedurals as the reason cable networks are reluctant to pony up for off-net series including “Criminal Minds,” “Bones,” “Numbers” and “Boston Legal.”

And TNT may soon be less tied to reruns as it commissions its own original scripted series, such as the high-rated “Closer” and, premiering July 18, “Saving Grace” starring Holly Hunter as a dysfunctional detective.

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