TNT Uncovers Low Fee for 'Alias'

Tue Mar 2, 2004 02:19 AM ET

By Andrew Wallenstein
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - "Alias" has infiltrated TNT, which acquired syndicated rights to the ABC spy series for a relatively modest sum.

The drama-heavy cable network bought "Alias" on a nonexclusive basis for less than $200,000 per episode, sources said. The sum is well below not only the almost $1 million asking price six months ago, but less than the seven-figure bills TNT foots for other primetime series, including CBS' "Without a Trace" and NBC's "Law & Order."

"Alias" will begin airing five nights a week on TNT in fall 2005. Although the show is in its third season on ABC, TNT is believed to have rights to episodes until at least its fifth season. ABC and its Disney corporate sibling, Touchstone Television, which produce the show, have "Alias" star Jennifer Garner under contract through the 2007-08 season.

With little interest in "Alias" from competing cable networks, TNT is said to have waited until the price plummeted before scooping it up. The show's Disney-owned syndicator, Buena Vista Television Distribution, likely will meet with the same tepid demand in broadcast syndication when it begins the difficult task of finding a weekend home for "Alias."

A few factors converged to crimp "Alias"' backend potential: Despite the buzz "Alias" has built during its three seasons, its ratings have never approached hit status. Season-to-date, the show has averaged 8.2 million viewers and a 3.4 rating/8 share among adults 18-49, tying for second place in the Sunday 9-10 p.m. slot in that demographic.

Even more damaging to its syndication prospects was the complexity of the series' story lines, which feature narrative arcs that extend beyond the individual episode. In syndication, where episodes can run out of order, series that contain distinct story lines to each particular episode like "Without a Trace" command much higher prices.

"When you have a show that difficult to follow, it's going to be cause for concern," said Bill Carroll, vp and director of programing at New York-based Katz Television, a leading station representation firm.

In addition, TNT will not have the honor of giving "Alias" its cable debut. That distinction belongs to Disney's ABC Family, which recycled, or "repurposed," "Alias" from ABC in 2002 and met with weak ratings. Acquisition executives came to view the repurposing as a disappointing syndication test.

But despite the drawbacks of the series, TNT might have bought itself a sleeper hit at bargain price. With Garner poised for potential movie stardom in upcoming films like "13 Going on 30," "Alias" could stay fresh even after its run concludes. In addition, its small audience could end up working in its favor, allowing a new generation of viewers who didn't catch "Alias" at first to revisit it on TNT.

"You are buying into a show that, positioned correctly, could become a cult favorite," Carroll said. "It's likely at minimum to do credible numbers."

TNT hasn't decided where in its schedule "Alias" will reside, but it will likely find a slot in the network's potent "Primetime in the Daytime" lineup. High-priced fare including "ER" and "NYPD Blue" have helped anchor more of TNT's more modestly budgeted acquisitions, including the WB Network series "Angel," which TNT is believed to have bought for a relative pittance at $250,000 per episode.

Buena Vista could get another revenue infusion from a weekend sale of "Alias." A likely first stop would be the ABC station group.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter