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‘NCIS’ will play on USA

Deal encompasses a five-year license term

The USA Network has agreed to pony up north of $750,000 an episode for exclusive cable TV rights to Paramount Domestic Television’s “NCIS,” which, going into its third year on CBS, is scoring its best Nielsen numbers ever.

The deal encompasses a five-year license term, starting with the first 88 episodes, which become available to USA in 2008.

USA also has the right to funnel some of the runs to its sister network Bravo, although there are no specific plans to trigger that clause.

A USA spokesman confirmed the deal but declined to discuss its terms.

Paramount has retained the right to sell the show simultaneously to TV stations in off-network syndication beginning in 2008. That ancillary market has sprung to life in the past two years with the solid ratings performance of King World’s reruns of “CSI.”

Another potentially lucrative right retained by Paramount is video-on-demand, which cable networks have begun putting on the table in negotiations. But the studios want to keep control of the VOD window because their series soon could harvest big bucks on VOD.

Also, there will be no once-a-week repurposing of current episodes because it would have cost USA an extra $150,000 per episode. But a year from now, USA could change its mind. The network has had good experiences repurposing “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and the current “House.”

USA was a logical place for “NCIS” to land because the network has successfully scheduled the reruns of “JAG,” the series that spawned “NCIS.” (Back in 1998, USA paid $750,000 an episode for “JAG.”)

Despite the industry perception that “NCIS” is a show that appeals disproportionately to older viewers, it’s averaging a solid 4.0 rating in the 18-49 demo season-to-date, up 24% from last season and up 50% from the previous year.

“NCIS” also is up by double digits in total viewers, despite going head-to-head with the most popular show in network primetime, Fox’s “American Idol.”

USA likely will strip “NCIS” at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. when the reruns kick off; the series also could play in late afternoon and even at 11 p.m. down the road.