Off-net series prove a tough sell

Distribs having hard time finding buyers for reruns

Cable networks are playing hard to get these days.

Distributors of at least 13 drama-series reruns are nervously beating the bushes, seeking to presell their shows to cable for fall 2008 or 2009. The hourlong shows run the gamut from police procedurals (“Criminal Minds,” “Numbers”) to soap operas (“The OC,” “One Tree Hill”) to sci-fi (“Lost,” “Supernatural”).

One reason many of these distribs are not getting their phone calls returned is that the key buyers have already committed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for high-priced reruns. TNT bought “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case”; USA bulked up with “House” and “NCIS”; A&E broke the bank for “The Sopranos” and “CSI: Miami”; and Lifetime is in hock for “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Medium.”

Network executives are also apprehensive about the sudden appearance of series episodes on iPods, computer screens (through streaming video) and video-on-demand cable.

Not a lot of people are watching TV series on these new platforms right now. But that may not be the case when these reruns finally make their way down the food chain onto the schedule of the cable-network buyer.

Another problem for the distribs is that there are no must-buys among the dramas seeking a home for their reruns.

“The top-of-the-list shows have already found buyers,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, which represents hundreds of TV stations. Carroll cites “Grey’s Anatomy,” ‘House” and “CSI: NY.” Spike TV bought “CSI: NY” for just over $2 million an episode, the second highest-price ever ponied up for an off-network hour. A&E’s $2.5 million for each hour of “Sopranos” is the record.

One possible solution to the logjam of unsold rerun hours is a dual revenue stream, says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media Corp., another TV-rep firm. On this model, the distribs lower the price of the show to cable networks in exchange for a major concession: being allowed to place the series into a simultaneous window in broadcast syndication.

The only window cable has allowed TV stations to exploit in the past is the two-episode weekend, because it doesn’t impinge directly on the weekday plays of the cable network.

But NBC Universal broke new ground for dramas two months ago when it cleared many of the Fox-owned TV stations for reruns of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” during the weekdays beginning next fall, while the series continues its multiple weekday run on USA.

Most of the “CI” deals are for latenight time periods on stations either owned by Fox, the CW and MyNetworkTV, or affiliated with them. But Losak says if other rerun dramas pop up for weekday play in broadcast syndication, she’d advise at least some of her station clients to think seriously about snapping them up.

These dramas might even get high-visibility time periods on TV stations affiliated with ABC, CBS and NBC, Losak says, particularly from stations that are fed up with the failure of one low-rated firstrun show after another, whether it’s a talkshow, gaveler, gameshow or magazine. At least dramas could serve as counterprogramming.

The downside of this strategy for distribs is the steep cost of union residuals for shows sold in weekday broadcast syndication, which can climb to as high as $15 million for one series.

The cost of these residuals is one of the reasons why most hourlong shows deserted broadcast syndication more than a decade ago, migrating to cable, where the unions get only about 10% of the license fee shelled out by a cable network.

So “Criminal Intent” could prove to be a one-time-only experiment in sharing by cable and broadcast syndication. And, faced with a glut of shows, distributors may be forced to sell their hours to cable at deflated prices.

Is that a death rattle in the distance, foreshadowing the decline and fall of the drama series? Hardly.

International sales are healthy, and multiple-episode DVDs are churning out profits for most series.

And, who knows, the next killer app may be right around the corner: “Desperate Housewives” on your cellphone.