TV network buys reruns for nearly $20 million

The ION network has engineered one of the biggest program purchases in its history, grabbing reruns of Twentieth TV’s “Boston Legal” for a license fee that could reach $20 million.

“This deal represents a whole new caliber of programming for us,” said Brandon Burgess, chairman and CEO of ION Media Networks. ION usually buys older reruns including the ones it’s scheduling now in primetime: “Mama’s Family,” “Who’s the Boss” and “The Drew Carey Show.”

Twentieth and ION declined to discuss dollar figures, but ION will pony up between $175,000 and $200,00 an episode for at least the 88 hours of “Boston Legal” that the studio has produced up to now. These episodes cover the first four seasons, from October 2004 through the six episodes in production for ABC’s primetime schedule in April and May.

ION will start stripping “Boston Legal” reruns in primetime in September. If ABC renews “Boston Legal” for 2008-09, its fifth season, ION has contracted to buy those as well — up to 106 hours.

One unusual clause in the deal permits Twentieth to sell the rights to a cable network for the series to run simultaneously with ION, which is primarily a broadcast network, although it uses some cable and satellite distribution to reach 94 million households.

But even if Twentieth gets an offer from a cable network, ION has the contractual right to match that offer and keep its Monday-through-Friday exclusivity. As is typical for hourlong reruns, Twentieth has sold “Boston Legal” to TV stations throughout the country for Saturday/Sunday use, beginning in September. These are two-year, non-cash deals, in which the stations give up half the advertising time in each play for national sale by Twentieth.

Burgess said he’s eager to get ION into the business of buying fresher shows in the future, such as “Boston Legal.” “We could function as an additional exhibition outlet for these kinds of shows,” he said.

TV syndicators will need new buyers such as ION because cable networks have been dissuaded from purchasing off-network hours, disappointed by the Nielsen performance of such reruns as “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case.”

There’s such a glut of police procedurals on cable networks that they’re cannibalizing one another’s viewers.

But Burgess said he scarfed up “Boston Legal” because it features lots of comedy. It’s a blessing, he said, that “the show doesn’t take itself as seriously as the procedurals.”

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