USA makes a primetime case

Network boasts new 'Law & Order' schedule

“Law & Order” and its multiple extensions have helped power NBC’s primetime ratings for 17 years now, but this fall, Dick Wolf’s franchise will face its toughest test — scaling Mount Thursday.

“We’re the brand-new kid on the Thursday night block,” says Wolf, referring to USA Network’s gutsy decision to schedule new weekly episodes of “Criminal Intent” on Thursdays at 10 beginning in October.

Going up against established broadcast dramas like “Without a Trace” on CBS and “ER” on NBC won’t be an easy task, but USA, the top commerical cabler, wants to stake its claim to turf on TV’s most prized night.

Wolf says he’s always wanted NBC to slot one of the “Law & Order” shows on Thursday, because it’s the most lucrative night of the week for advertising. “But NBC has had this little show called ‘ER,’ ” Wolf says, plus a block of comedies going back to the ’80s. (Wolf’s company is part of NBC Universal, which owns both NBC and USA.)

“The demand for spots on Thursday is so great because movie companies, automakers, fast-food chains and other retailers are convinced it’s the best night to reach people who live for weekends at the mall,” says Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming for media buyer Carat, N.A.

The networks have consistently stuffed Thursday night with some of their highest-visibility programming. These days, that includes “CSI” on CBS, “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC and “The Office” on NBC.

Harry Keeshan, executive VP of national broadcast for media buyer PHD USA, says cable networks over the years were intimidated by the powerhouse lineups of the broadcasters and steered clear of Thursday night.

The prospect of launching an assault on what looked like an impregnable broadcast fortress had proved daunting, says Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and its Sci Fi Channel sibling.

Ironically, USA’s main cable competitor, TNT, started the ball rolling on the USA Thursday strategy by pounding on NBC’s door three months ago to buy new episodes of the original “L&O” when NBC began thinking of canceling the show due to subpar ratings. TNT owned the rights to “L&O” reruns, which were also losing viewers and needed the adrenaline shot of fresh episodes.

But the thought of surrendering even a fraction of arguably the most successful franchise in TV history to a cutthroat rival galvanized USA into engineering the takeover of production of “CI.” USA chose “CI” over the original “L&O” because the network carries “CI” reruns, which are not pulling the audiences they were two years ago. (NBC reversed course and renewed the original “L&O.”)

Hammer is convinced the new “CI” hours will serve as cross-promotion for the reruns and potentially get some viewers back, and she figures that if any original scripted series can make it in Thursday’s Nielsen demolition derby, that show is “CI.”

“We keep insisting that we’re the fifth network,” Hammer says of USA’s No. 1 cable ranking. But she realizes it’s a false boast if it keeps sneaking out of town every Thursday night.

USA prepared for the October debut of a new “CI” season by putting together a Thursday summer lineup featuring its high-profile limited series “The Starter Wife,” with Debra Messing, and a hot new action series, “Burn Notice,” which averages more than 3.5 million viewers.

John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, says, “USA has created a sound strategy, getting viewers predisposed to check out the network on Thursday during the summer.”

The reason “CI” should be competitive in the fall, says Rash, is that “there won’t be any qualitative difference in production values” with 10 p.m. broadcast programming on NBC (“ER”), CBS (“Without a Trace”) and ABC (the new “Big Shots”).

Wolf agreed to some cost-cutting in “L&O” and “CI” in May, but insists the trims won’t show up onscreen. Published figures indicate “CI” will cost slightly more than $3 million an hour (from $3.5 million for the 2006-07 episodes) and that USA will pay about $2.2 million of that in license fees. Foreign and DVD sales will cover the deficit.

But there’s no guarantee that “CI” originals will prosper on Thursday, says Laura Caraccioli Davis, senior VP and director of media buyer Starcom Entertainment. Referring to “the TiVo factor,” Davis says viewers would be more likely to watch a new show like “Big Shots” live and record “CI” on their digital videorecorders.

This DVR brigade might not watch the “CI” episode until late Sunday; all of the spots promoting movies and retail items for weekend shoppers would thus become pointless

The threat of DVRs, and the unlikelihood that “CI” will pull down any of its Big Three drama rivals in the Nielsens, may trigger USA’s fallback strategy.

“If we fail on Thursday,” Hammer says, “we can say that at least we gave it the old college try. And then we’ll move the show to another night.”

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