ICYMI (Originally posted on Jan. 27): Successful broadcast procedurals used to be a gold mine for studios which would sell them for top dollar in cable syndication and internationally. It was only five years ago when the off-network market peaked as preemptive buys drove prices up, and CBS’ dramas The Mentalist, NCIS: LA and Hawaii Five-0 all sold to cable networks in their first or second seasons for more than $2 million per episode.
While the appetite overseas for high-end U.S. close-ended dramas remains healthy, that is no longer the case among domestic cable networks. With ratings for off-network procedurals not as strong as they used to be — leading to major financial losses by cable networks on existing syndication deals — interest in broadcast dramas has been on a decline.
Streaming services have stepped up as a strong alternative for more serialized fare like Shondaland’s ABC series as well as hybrid serialized/procedurals, like NBC/Sony TV’s The Blacklist, which sold in summer 2014 for $2 million an episode to Netflix after its first season. It was the last big-ticket deal for a broadcast drama, preceded by WGN America’s buys of then-sophomore CBS/CBS Studios’ Elementary and third-year CBS/Warner Bros. TV’s Person Of Interest for reported $1.1 million -$1.5 million an episode.
The marketplace has gotten tougher, with cable networks, including traditional top buyers of off-network dramas TNT and USA Nework, shifting acquired programming funds from broadcast procedurals to theatrical movies.
Among the established, high-profile broadcast drama series yet to be sold off-network are NBC/Uni TV’s Chicago franchise, from the king of procedurals Dick Wolf, as well as CBS/CBS Studios’ Scorpion, NCIS: New Orleans and Madam Secretary, all in their third seasons. There had been exploratory conversations on Scorpion earlier in its run, though none of the CBS series had been officially taken out yet. Also yet to secure cable/broadcast syndication deals on top of the Netflix pact is The Blacklist, which I hear is being shopped.
Chicago flagship Chicago Fire recently aired its 100th episode. In its fifth season on NBC, it should’ve already been airing in syndication this season but has not yet landed a cable or SVOD deal. I hear the series was recently taken out but eventually pulled off the market after yielding just one offer for what I hear was around or north of $350,000 an episode. Unlike Wolf’s venerable Law & Order franchise, whose mothership series and Law & Order: SVU have been cornerstones of TNT and USA’s primetime lineups for years, boosting the networks’ viewerships and helping them launch originals, Chicago Fire is more soapy, a serialized drama with procedural elements. Still, given its pedigree and success on NBC, the initial off-market market reaction to the firefighter drama has been surprising.
Chicago Fire offshoot Chicago P.D., now in its fourth season, is also overdue for an off-network deal. The cop drama has a stronger procedural quotient, and I hear it looks promising to net a sale soon. I hear complicating matters for the Chicago shows is the fact that Wolf, who has been at NBC for more than three decades, has a one-of-a kind deal that is believed to give him one of the biggest if not the biggest profit participation in television. While that was not a major issue in the golden age for off-network procedurals, it now puts a squeeze on the studio as I hear Wolf’s off-network cut has remained about the same as off-market prices have dropped.
I recently asked NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt about the value to the company of the Chicago franchise — which also includes sophomore Chicago Med and the upcoming Chicago Justice — in a suppressed off-network market.
“It’s a big combination of things,” he said. “You look at the ratings, and those Chicago shows are almost across the board success stories as hits on our network, and then you look at the next chain, what they cost versus what they bring in. We’re still in the early days of these shows, and we are really hopeful that we are going to have hundreds of hours of Chicago shows in a world where there seems to be an insatiable amount of SVODs and other outlets. We all believe and Dick believes there’s going to be enough business there off-network to justify those shows going for a number of years.”
Greenblatt noted that the shows vary in their prospects — “PD may have a better shot because of what that franchise is over Fire, and Justice may have more advantage over Med. We have to look at the whole totality of it, but no regrets whatsoever and no doubt about Dick’s vision for this being one of the things that really refueled the network and won 10 o’clock time periods.”
Chicago Fire this week marked its 40th consecutive 10 PM time slot victory with an original over regular competition.
Dramas’ longevity — great for the broadcast networks that carry them and the studios that produce them — is actually a point of concern for cable nets and streaming platforms as it raises their risk and financial exposure in a syndication deal if a series underperforms. Amid softer ratings for off-network dramas, I hear buyers are wary of incurring a huge tab should a series go on for a long time because off-network deals are typically done for the entire run of a show. Cable and streaming outlets can be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars for a off-network series that could be kept alive because it makes money for the broadcast network and its sister studio with syndication and international deals as has been the case with dramas like Medium.
Still, with a vast Chicago library, NBCU will have other options too — including the long-gestating NBCU SVOD service and the potential revamp of the network’s female-focused cable channel Oxygen into a crime-themed network anchored by Wolf series.
Tribune’s WGN America was the last basic cable network to make big off-network drama buys with Person Of Interest and Elementary in an effort to supplement its growing original series slate. The two shows performed below expectations, leading to a $74 million write-down by Tribune. A third, smaller-ticket drama, CBS Studios’ Blue Bloods, a joint buy with ION when the series was in its fourth season on CBS, has fared better.
“I believe that there is a reset in the price point for those shows,” WGN America general manager Matt Cherniss told Deadline about broadcast dramas. “I believe that on average and on the balance, syndication is still something you can make work but you have to be very vigilant about the cost you spend on these shows because let’s be honest, people are watching television differently now. There is still an audience for syndicated shows, there is still way to program them successfully — and Blue Bloods is an example of a show that has been very successful for us in syndication — but I think that if you overspend with the sense that you must have something, you can find yourself in a situation where the shows aren’t profitable for you and I think that’s happened over the past three years, and its something that the business is going to reckon with.”
“If I were a betting man I would say that syndication — short of really breakout huge hits — probably is going to see prices stabilized at a lower level that we’ve seen in the past,” Cherniss added.
In 2014, Turner took a $400 million write-down on programming expenditures. A significant portion of that came from two megabuck off-network acquisitions that had been disappointing performers for TNT: Hawaii Five-0 and The Mentalist. That followed a $104 million charge in 2009 over another off-network drama procedural, Without A Trace, which had sold for $1.4 million an episode.
TNT, whose primetime was sustained by Law & Order repeats for more than a decade, has largely shied away from buying off-network dramas since 2014, sometime stacking CW series produced by sibling Warner Bros TV, a stunt that has done well. Instead, along with the NBCUniversal cable networks and FX, TNT has shifted its acquisition strategy to theatrical movies, recently outbidding a host of other cable networks to land Disney’s 10-movie Star Wars package for a price tag in the neighborhood of $200 million.
USA also has been shunning off-network dramas in favor of theatrical movies recently, and I hear the network plans to stick to that strategy for the near future. In August, NBCUniversal made a big deal with Warner Bros for the broadcast and cable TV rights to all Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films. (In addition to the venerable Law & Order: SVU, USA is the off-network home of NCIS, which it got as a steal in 2006 for $750,000 an episode, and NCIS: Los Angeles, whose steep price tag was considered a symbolic make-good for the huge profits USA had raked in with the resilient NCIS, one of the strongest off-network drama series of all time.)
FX, once home of dozens of 20th TV drama series, pulled away from that business over a decade ago and started the current movie acquisition trend several years ago.
“Which dramas should we buy,” TNT and TBS president Kevin Reilly asked. “We’ve done very well with shows like Bones and Castle, which are not among the top shows but are very resilient, there are few and far between coming off network these days. And we just find the inverse of what you may have thought of if you could dial back time even eight years ago. SVOD really became a better series experience. Meanwhile, just think of your SVOD movie experience — going to find a movie there ends up being a needle in a haystack. But if you are flipping around the dial and you say ‘Oh, this is my favorite part of Empire Strikes Back.’ You will watch the same movie for the 94th time.”
There are other advantages of theatrical movies over off-network series.
“It’s a very good reach vehicle for us, it keeps a lot of infusion of different audience,” Reilly said. “If you have the same series on every day, you are kind of speaking to the same audience. So a lot of good things about (theatrical movies), but it’s become very competitive, driving prices high.”
In the television business most things are cyclical, so it is possible that one day, with movie prices rising, off-network dramas will again become attractive to cable networks. But most agree that the exclusive all-encompassing pacts of $2 million-plus an episode, including full digital rights, will probably never come back, and the studios will likely make their money via multiple non-exclusive multi-platform sales that could offset cable license fees as low as $100,000-$250,000 an episode.
In 2013, CBS TV Distribution sold serialized legal drama with procedural elements The Good Wife in a complex multi-window deal that involves two streaming partners, Amazon and Hulu; a basic cable network, Hallmark Channel; and broadcast syndication for a combined license fee believed to be close to $2 million per episode.
“This is an off-network model for a unique serialized show in today’s television ecosystem,” CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said at the time.
It may also be the future off-network model for any broadcast drama.