‘NCIS’ chasing cable cash

Par seeking more than $1 mil per episode

Talk about good timing: Paramount TV’s “NCIS” is off to the fastest Nielsen start in its three-year history at CBS, just as the distributor is pitching the show’s reruns to the major cable networks.

Paramount’s goal is to harvest more than $1 million an episode for “NCIS,” which would elevate the series into the rarefied atmosphere of such cash machines as “Cold Case” ($1.4 million from TNT), “Without a Trace” ($1.325 million from TNT), “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” ($1.3 million from USA) and “CSI: Miami” ($1.02 million from A&E).

One of the things these shows have in common is that, like “NCIS,” each episode is self-contained. It’s easier for viewers to watch the reruns of programs that reach a conclusion each hour, instead of being left in the lurch with shows that spin subplots across multiple episodes. A Paramount spokesman declined to discuss the company’s plans for the sale of “NCIS.”

During its most recent CBS telecast on Tuesday, “NCIS” chalked up 16.8 million total viewers, more than double the next-highest-rated show in the time period, and delivered a series-best 4.4 rating in adults 18-49 and a 5.9 rating among the 25-54 crowd, easily winning its time period across the board.

“NCIS” has also held its own when CBS scheduled repeats on Saturdays, delivering numbers on par with those put up on the night by the Eye’s “CSI” franchise.

Cable networks that are expected to run the numbers on “NCIS” are USA, TNT, Spike TV and FX. USA will be aggressive because it got a number of solid-rated years out of Paramount TV’s “JAG,” the series that spawned “NCIS.”

Bravo and Court TV also are interested, but the show likely will be too costly for them. Bravo probably would have to share it with its sister network USA, and Court TV (half-owned by Time Warner) with its TW stepsister TNT. In these cases, USA or TNT would play the reruns Monday through Friday, and Bravo or Court TV would slot them on the weekends.

There’s precedent in both cases: Court TV shares “NYPD Blue” with TNT, while USA shares “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” with Bravo.

For the right license fee from cable, Paramount would be willing to forgo selling a weekend play of “NCIS” to TV stations in off-network syndication.

Multiple weekly plays of the repeats become available to the winning bidder in the fall of 2007. The contract calls for 92 episodes for a four-year license term, with a 12-month extension if CBS renews it for the 2007-08 season. For each additional season of episodes commissioned by CBS, the stations would pick up an extra 12 months.

But the winning bidder also would be able to negotiate a separate deal for once-a-week repeats of “NCIS,” which could start before the year is out.

Paramount has no plans to offer a cable network the video-on-demand rights to “NCIS.” As more people start becoming hooked on VOD, Paramount wants to keep control of what could become a lucrative technology in the next few years.

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