'NCIS: LA' pickup comes just seven weeks after launch

USA Network has already secured the exclusive off-network syndicated run of frosh drama “NCIS: Los Angeles” — and at a near-record sum.

Also on Thursday, Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution sold another Eye hit, “The Mentalist,” to Turner.

USA has agreed to pay CBS Television Distribution around $2.5 million per episode for the rights to “NCIS: Los Angeles,” which will be available as a strip in fall 2013. As part of the deal, USA will be able to start airing weekly repeats of the show’s first season starting in September 2011.

Deal comes after just seven episodes of “NCIS: Los Angeles” have run on CBS.

Execs at CBS TV Distribution couldn’t remember any other new primetime series that had been sold into off-network syndication so fast. Given that a show usually needs to reach close to 100 episodes before it can be stripped, most distributors have to wait until it’s clear that the program will air at least four seasons.

There’s little doubt that “NCIS: Los Angeles” will last that long, given its early performance. Show has averaged 17 million viewers season to date and in viewers is the second highest rated drama in primetime, behind “NCIS.”

Several networks expressed interest in “NCIS: Los Angeles,” but when it became clear that the pricetag would soar north of $2 million per seg, that pretty much left USA and Turner.

Price paid by USA for “NCIS: Los Angeles” is one of the highest ever for an off-network hour. The record is held by “The Sopranos,” for which A&E shelled out $2.5 million. Other top earners include “CSI: NY,” which was purchased by Spike TV for just more than $2 million an episode.

It’s also a reminder that even as basic cable continues to tout its original programming, it still depends a great deal on syndicated runs of broadcast network shows.

USA obviously had the upper edge given that it airs the original recipe “NCIS” in off-net to blockbuster ratings. Show is currently No. 1 among off-net series on cable, averaging 3.5 million total viewers. USA paid around $1 million per episode for “NCIS.”

The “NCIS” off-network “price per episode per rating (is) probably the best buy in the history of syndication,” one insider said.

USA viewers have even previously seen “NCIS: Los Angeles” on the channel — sort of. As part of its marketing push for the show, CBS this summer gave USA a special early run of last year’s “NCIS” two-parter that introduced “NCIS: Los Angeles” stars Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J.

News of the “NCIS: Los Angeles” sale was first revealed during CBS Corp.’s earnings conference call on Thursday. CBS honcho Leslie Moonves let it spill that one of CBS’ frosh dramas had already been sold into syndication — and it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that it was probably “NCIS: L.A.”

“This basically underscores Leslie’s comments that we’re a premiere content producer,” said CBS TV Distribution prexy of distribution Scott Koondel. “The fact that someone would buy a show after just seven episodes at such a high price shows faith in our studio and the quality of the shows that we make.”

CBS TV Studios produces “NCIS: Los Angeles,” which comes from exec producers Shane Brennan and R. Scott Gemmill.

As for “The Mentalist,” Turner is believed to have paid between $2.2 million and $2.3 million an episode for the drama. Show, now in its second season on CBS, was a breakout hit for CBS last year. The high price tags for both “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “The Mentalist” have given studios a renewed optimistic view on primetime network TV’s syndication potential.

“The Mentalist” is set to bow on TNT in fall 2012.

“Everyone recognized early on that ‘The Mentalist’ was an A-tier drama, the kind of program that would have a profoundly positive effect on its cable licensee,” said Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution prexy Ken Werner. “The demand for the off-network rights began almost immediately following its debut on CBS last fall and has steadily increased.”

“The Mentalist,” which stars Simon Baker, comes from Warner Bros. TV and exec producers Bruno Heller and Chris Long.

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