Cable marketplace getting crowded

Reruns of top network shows see smaller dough

“Heroes” and “Lost” are two of the hottest dramas on television, but you wouldn’t know it from the alarmingly low dollar figures both shows managed to tease out of the cable-network marketplace earlier this month.

Each show’s reruns settled for roughly $200,000 an episode. Compare that to the $1-million-plus that was routine for off-network hours through early 2006. (A&E wanted “The Sopranos” so badly it ponied up $2.5 million an hour, which still stands as the record.)

But “Heroes” and “Lost” aren’t the only off-net dramas struggling to cash in: In an increasingly crowded cable landscape, even old reliables like close-ended crime procedurals are having a tough time commanding coin.

“Heroes” and “Lost” are “great shows,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, the rep firm, “but they’re serialized. And serialized programs don’t get traction anymore from the big cable networks” like USA, TNT, A&E and Spike TV that buy lots of off-network shows.

The relatively small G4 cable net, owned by Comcast, bought shared rights to both shows. Its partner for “Heroes” is Mojo, an even tinier 24/7 network aimed at young men; G4’s “Lost” cohort is Sci Fi Channel, which doesn’t usually buy high-visibility off-network shows.

“Shows like these don’t play well in reruns,” says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for rep firm Petry Media Corp.

Indeed, being plunked down without a clue in the middle of a multiple-episode story arc is anything but satisfying to most viewers.

Buena Vista’s “Alias” and Twentieth TV’s “24” are recent examples of serialized reruns that flopped in cable. But the prices were low: TNT paid only about $200,000 an hour for “Alias” and A&E forked over about $250,000 an episode for “24.”

It’s small comfort, but each network will end up at least slightly in the black with “Alias” and “24” because the distributors sell up to 45 runs of each hour over a four- or five-year license term. (And if A&E schedules two or three plays of a “24” episode within a 24-hour period, the boilerplate in the contract says that counts as only one run.)

On the procedural front, CBS TV Distribution has pushed back the start date of “Criminal Minds” reruns from fall 2009 to fall 2010 because no cable network is in a hurry to pony up a mid- to high-six-figure price per episode. But, says Scott Koondel, exec VP of CBS TV Distribution, says, however, if a cable network showed up with a solid offer for 2009, he wouldn’t hesitate to make the accommodation.

The days when classic reruns in the procedural genre like “CSI” and “Law & Order” (and all of their spinoffs) could rack up 4-million viewers on a regular basis in cable TV are becoming a distant memory.

The cable-network grids are so clogged with these shows that they end up cannibalizing one another. This demolition derby has put some dents in such reruns as “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case” on TNT, which was hoping that one or both would take some of the Nielsen burden off its voluminous weekly runs of the original “Law & Order.”

The ratings of “L&O” have softened over the last two years, but the series still brings in enough viewers for TNT to keep slotting it regularly in primetime and early evening. The prices that TNT shelled out when it pre-bought “Cold Case” ($1.4 million an episode) and “Trace” ($1.35 million) a few years ago look wildly excessive now, but at the time they were the going rate; Warner Bros. Domestic Distribution, the syndicator, had a number of other bidders for both shows.

The big license fees didn’t even buy TNT exclusivity: It will have to share “Trace” and “Cold Case” with local TV stations, which have negotiated for two episodes a week to play on Saturday and Sunday. (TNT gets the Monday-through-Friday runs.)

“Criminal Minds,” a success for CBS on Wednesday nights, is not the only off-network hour anxiously seeking a cable-network buyer. CBS TV Distribution would also love to move reruns of “Numbers” and “Ghost Whisperer,” and Twentieth TV has “Bones,” “Prison Break” and “The Unit” available for cable consideration.

Warner Bros. Domestic has sounded out the marketplace for reruns of a non-broadcast procedural, “The Closer,” even though the original episodes are setting basic-cable Nielsen records on TNT. If “Closer” scares up big bucks from another cable network, it will give new life to a recent trend: scripted off-network hours from cable networks themselves.

However, the track record is less than stellar. Lifetime series such as “Strong Medicine,” which played for six seasons, and “The Division,” which engineered a four-year run, have not made an impact in reruns, and repeats of FX’s hit weekly series “The Shield” were a bust in five-a-week rerun play on Spike TV.

And is A&E getting its money’s worth with “Sopranos” reruns? If you look at the double run Wednesdays at 10, the answer is a qualified yes. Year to date, “Sopranos” is averaging 1.56-million viewers, which is 20% higher than those who watched the same Wednesday time period in 2006.

But A&E also plays back-to-back runs of “Sopranos” every Sunday at 10 p.m., where its average of 600,000 viewers is 36% below the numbers of the net a year ago.

CBS TV Distribution will probably argue that if A&E would only come to its senses and buy “Criminal Minds” as the Sunday-night lead-in, viewers would rediscover their favorite Mafia family man.