A&E Network, in outbidding Turner Network Television for exclusive syndication rights to The Sopranos, has capped an aggressive acquisition binge that is an integral part of the service’s ongoing transformation.
The purchase of Home Box Office’s Emmy Award-winning mob drama for a record $2.5 million for each of 75 to 78 installments through 2010 follows its purchase of the cable-syndication rights for CSI: Miami (CBS) and Twentieth Television serial 24 (Fox), as well as the launch of a number of unscripted series that lowered the median age of its viewership while propelling it to significant audience gains in 2004.
For HBO, the $190 million sale of The Sopranos should prove a further enticement to the creative community. License fees and DVD revenue streams aside, HBO’s top long-form programming is now reaping big dollars in the syndication market.
Besides The Sopranos, HBO sold cable-syndication rights to Sex and the City to TBS and to various broadcast stations. Miniseries From the Earth to the Moon went to TNT, while Band of Brothers was picked up by a fellow A&E Television Networks service The History Channel.
Sources said HBO’s Six Feet Under, which will air its fifth and final season this year, could be next on the syndication block.
HBO officials declined to comment about the afterlife prospects for the quirky mortuary series and about the syndication deal for The Sopranos.
For A&E, the path to obtaining The Sopranos, starring James Gandolfini as the troubled head of both a New Jersey crime crew and his own family, began more than two years ago, said A&E senior vice president of programming Robert DeBitetto, who was hired by network president Abbe Raven.
“The Sopranos has been one of the special programs on TV in recent years. I came here in the beginning of 2003 and we began to have discussions internally and then with HBO,” he said. “There is a premium TV element to A&E and we wanted that association with HBO.”
After other contenders — including FX, USA Network, Spike TV and Lifetime Television — were eliminated from the chase for David Chase’s series, those discussions culminated with final negotiations and bidding against TNT Jan. 29 to 31.
Time Warner Inc.-owned TNT, which most considered the favorite to obtain the series given its “drama” positioning and familial ties to HBO, declined to comment.
Sources indicate that TNT ended its bidding in the range of $2.3 million per episode.
“We would have loved to have had it,” said a TNT source. “But we’re the No. 1 network and didn’t really need it. At some point, the economics didn’t work. Perhaps it will push A&E into the top 10.”
Executives at A&E Television Networks — owned by Hearst Corp., The Walt Disney Co.’s ABC and NBC Universal — declined to discuss financial aspects, other than to say the network doesn’t make deals it doesn’t believe will be profitable.
A&E will begin airing The Sopranos late next year, after what figures to be the conclusion of the show’s sixth and final season, which is expected to bow in spring 2006.
'CSI’ SHOW, '24’ DUE
Next year, CSI Miami, which already airs at 11 p.m. on Sunday nights, will be available to A&E in primetime. This fall, the net also gains the cable rights to 24.
“By fall 2006, our big acquired shows will all be in place,” said DeBitetto.
And that appears to be a pretty good place, according to Ray Dundas, senior vice president, group director of national broadcast at ad agency Initiative.
“The Sopranos deal says this is not the same old A&E,” he said. “This helps create a new profile. Along with 24 and CSI, there’s a programming compatibility; there should be a fit, particularly among male viewers.”
Quipped one network source, “They’ve done more things to go after males than Spike TV.” The source noted that A&E’s acquisition spree follows its ill-fated decision not to renew the rights for Law & Order in September 2002. Grabbing exclusive rights to Dick Wolf’s original crime and justice franchise steeled TNT’s position atop the ratings and demographic groups.
“That was a costly mistake for A&E,” he said. “It was a deal for a lot less money and a lot more episodes.”
Added TV historian and Lifetime Television executive vice president of research Tim Brooks: “The Sopranos might have been a must-have for A&E. But I’m not sure what it says for their brand.”
If that brand positioning is still crystallizing in the minds of some, DeBitetto and Raven have helped move the network away from its former over-reliance on the Biography franchise and older-skewing shows.
'GOTTI’ ON BOARD
In 2004, DeBitetto said A&E scored with the introduction of a quintet of new unscripted series that appealed to younger viewers: The First 48, Growing up Gotti, Dog The Bounty Hunter, Airline and Family Plots. (See chart.)
“We lowered our median age from a peak of around 60, early in 2003, to 50 last year,” he said, adding the net had its best year with delivery of adults 18 to 34 and major gains with adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54.
According to Nielsen Media Research data, A&E averaged 150,000 (up 76% from 2003), 426,000 (up 34%) and 507,000 (up 22%) viewers within those respective groups in 2004.
Before the acquisitions arrive, A&E will continue its originals thrust. DeBitetto has high hopes for Intervention, which he bills as a “docusoap” that looks at subjects’ addictions and attendant tribulations before family and friends intervene.
“It will be controversial with dark elements, but it does lead to a redemptive path,” he said.
Knievel’s Wild Ride, a look at the life and the traveling group surrounding the son of daredevil legend Evel Knievel, will be paired with Dog The Bounty Hunter. “It will be a powerful two-hour block,” he said.
Inked is another docusoap tracing the goings-on within a tattoo parlor in a Las Vegas.
DeBitetto also said A&E has a host of other movies, specials, miniseries, unscripted shows and dramas, including a third-season renewal for spy drama MI5, slated to bow next January, in the works.
That takes the network into 2006. DeBitetto plans to strip CSI: Miami in “a traditional way,” but that likely won’t be the case for 24 and The Sopranos. Those shows will be vertically stacked, he envisions, each with its own night.
“There’s a long time between now and then, but that’s what we’re thinking,” he said.
There will be plenty of work getting The Sopranos ready in the meantime.
The mob hit is notorious for mixing in profanity, nudity and sex, and violence. But in anticipation of the syndication market, HBO filmed alternate versions of episodes after season one.
DeBitetto said A&E will work closely with HBO and the show’s creators to fashion versions that will retain the show’s creative voice, but will meet the standards of basic-cable.
'WE HAVE LATITUDE’
“We’re an adult-skewing network, so we have some latitude. I think you’ll see something between what you would expect in traditional syndication at 7 p.m. and what’s on HBO,” he explained. “The goal is to make a show that’s welcome to the majority of the advertising market.”
Dundas said there should be solid interest in The Sopranos. “There are some clients that just won’t want to get attached to a show like this,” he said. “And you’re never going to get the packaged-goods or female-targeted products. But it should work well for male-oriented brands, as well as beers and autos. It should also be big for the studios.”
That’s why Dundas believes A&E will run the show on Thursdays, when movies are advertised most heavily. He’s also advocating Sundays.
“They should run it at 10 p.m. If HBO comes back with a seventh season [in its 9 p.m. time slot] … talk about the audience flow.”
An HBO spokesman noted that production has yet to begin on season six, which may yield 10 or 13 episodes.
“Seasons four, five and six have all been the last as far as David [Chase] is concerned. Like [HBO chairman] Chris Albrecht said at [the Television Critics Association tour last month], if David graces us with anything more, we’ll be very happy.”