‘Law’ addiction pays big for TNT

USA's tennis coverage sends viewers to rival

“Law & Order” fans are like crack-cocaine addicts: If one network deprives them of their fix, they’ll find another network supplier.

The week of Aug. 27 offered a classic case of desperate “L&O”-rerun junkies streaming in big numbers to TNT after being deprived of their regular stash of the “Criminal Intent” and “Special Victims Unit” spinoffs on USA, which was booked with U.S. Open tennis instead of multiple runs of the “L&O” bellwethers.

Millions of people flocked to eight separate “L&O” episodes scattered throughout TNT’s lineup between Aug. 27 and Aug. 31, catapulting all of them into the top-50-rated programs for the week among total viewers — an “L&O” Nielsen bonanza that TNT hasn’t seen since USA’s cable-exclusive coverage of the last U.S. Open a year ago.

During the previous week, when USA slotted its usual complement of “CI” and “SVU” repeats, not one “L&O” episode on TNT showed up in the top 50. With the U.S. Open on USA, TNT’s ratings shot up week to week by 29% in total viewers, by 37% in adults 25-54 and by 44% in adults 18-49.

The standings of USA and TNT were also markedly affected. For the Aug. 27 week, USA tumbled to sixth place overall in total viewers among ad-supported cable networks instead of its usual first place finish. TNT, by contrast, came in a strong second overall, behind No. 1 ESPN.

But USA execs aren’t crying in their beer. The U.S. Open may not funnel big auds to USA, but it delivers a greater number of upscale, educated viewers than USA’s usual mix.

USA’s commitment to 90-plus hours of annual U.S. Open coverage goes back to 1984, and its current six-year contract, which costs the network $20.8 million a year, expires in 2008.

“L&O” or no “L&O,” don’t be surprised if USA renews the U.S. Open in another multiple-year deal.

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