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NBC U looks to ‘Monk’ to milk sales

Series mixes comedy with police procedural

The rerun marketplace has gone bananas for such hard-edged dramas as “The Sopranos,” the three “Law & Orders” and the three “CSIs,” which have racked up record license fees among cable networks.

But there’s a police procedural on TV that’s more interested in treating crime with a light touch than in ramping up the quota of sex and violence every week. It’s called “Monk,” and the NBC Universal’s series has chalked up better ratings since its July 2002 premiere on USA than any other scripted hour in the history of basic cable.

“A major part of ‘Monk’s’ appeal is that there’s nothing in all of television quite like it,” says Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network, which has commissioned a fourth season of the series.

Hammer gives a lot of the credit to Tony Shalhoub, the star of “Monk.” Ravaged with more phobias than any other homicide sleuth in pop-culture history, Shalhoub plays a detective who gives new meaning to the term nervous-wreck.

The heavy doses of comedy — “We want to get the viewers laughing,” says David Hoberman, co-exec producer of “Monk” — raise a big financial question about “Monk”: Could potential buyers steer clear of the reruns, pigeonholing the series as a one-hour comedy, a format that has never scored big beyond its original run? ( “Moonlighting” and “Ally McBeal” failed to generate much viewership when their reruns stumbled into the ancillary markets.)

NBC U, which distributes “Monk,” has not yet pitched the show’s reruns to cable nets, at least in part because USA doesn’t want it to. Armed with an exclusive lock on the biggest hit series in cable, USA enjoys significant clout with cable operators. (“Monk” is averaging 5.06-million total viewers so far this season; FX’s “The Shield” is a hit, and it averaged only 2.5 million during its last 17-episode season.)

When USA visits operators at contract-renewal time to seek more money in license fees, “Monk” hands the network a nice bargaining chip. But if NBC U presells the reruns to, say, TNT or ABC Family, “Monk” won’t seem so unique any more.

USA itself could eventually buy the reruns, but only after NBC U sounds out a batch of other cabler nets to make sure USA is ponying up the marketplace price. Any hint of a sweetheart deal invites lawsuits from profit participants.

“Monk” is one of the most expensive shows to produce in all of cable TV. Its cost ballooned to about $1.7 million an episode when U moved the series from Toronto to Los Angeles in its second year to accommodate Shalhoub, whose family resides in L.A.

The show will get only a portion of that money back from ad sales on USA because — based on the first 14 episodes of season three — 54% of its viewers are 50 or older, a demo that Madison Avenue looks on with disdain. International sales and DVD of the first two seasons have generated more revenues, but the show’s real profits will come from the license fees coughed up by basic cable for “Monk” reruns.

But Shalhoub was worth the extra expense of the L.A. shoot: His performance has won him an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG award. As Hammer puts it, Shalhoub “constantly finds new ways to mine every bit of comic potential in a character with obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Andy Breckman, co-exec producer and the creative genius behind “Monk,” says he’s convinced the show will have a long shelf life because “we go out of our way to avoid topicality. We’re the opposite of ‘Law & Order’ — ripping stories from today’s headlines is not what ‘Monk’ is about.”

One of Breckman’s favorite adjectives is “timeless.” As a writer, his model is Arthur Conan Doyle, because Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are as fresh as when they first showed up in print more than 100 years ago.

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