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Law & Order: Criminal Intent — Coming soon every night to a broadcast television station near you.

For the first time in a long time, an off-network hour-long drama is being sold in broadcast syndication for airing in daily (strip) syndication. (That’s right! You heard me!) NBC Universal announced it was selling Law & Order: Criminal Intent to Fox-owned stations in top markets (including WFLD/WPWR here in Chicago) on a barter basis beginning in September 2007 in a unique cable/broadcast hybrid.

This marks the first crime drama to be offered in daily syndication since 21 Jump Street and Matlock were sold to broadcast stations in 1990, and the first overall drama to be sold since Paramount took 7th Heaven to broadcast stations in 1999.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, before cable became a major player, hour-long shows of all sorts were sold into syndication, including programs like Perry Mason, Star Trek (where it became a phenomenon), Gunsmoke, The Rookies, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy, Barnaby Jones, and Magnum P.I.

In the mid-’80’s however, reruns of serialized soap operas — Dallas, then later Dynasty, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest — faired poorly in strip syndication. Then, stations started choosing off -net sitcoms over dramas. Programs like The Cosby Show, Who’s The Boss? , and Married… With Children filled up key early fringe, prime access, and late fringe time periods on broadcast stations. Meanwhile, cable networks like USA, The Family Channel, and A&E started snapping up rights to hour-long shows such as Murder, She Wrote, Scarecrow & Mrs. King, McGyver, and The Equalizer.

This doesn’t mean that hour-long shows didn’t prosper in syndication. Hunter, which debuted in syndication in 1989, performed well for local stations, particularly in Los Angeles where during the first few years it beat all local competition (including local news) at 6p.m. Matlock continues to perform well for stations who air it, especially in the South, where star Andy Griffith is still popular. Other hour-long programs such as Highway to Heaven , Beverly Hills 90210, In The Heat Of The Night, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman also performed respectably. Three of those four shows were sold on a barter basis (90210 was sold on a cash-barter basis), with the syndicators keeping half of the commercial time to sell to national advertisers, and stations got the other half to sell. They didn’t have to pay for the shows, and thus, the risk was low.

However, cable stepped up its game in the mid-’90’s, and started acquiring exclusive rights to hour-long dramas, as stations turned to first-run talk shows and more off-network sitcoms. Then a decade ago, Twentieth Television became one of the first syndicators to sell off-net hour long programs to a cable/syndication hybrid: The X-Files, NYPD Blue, and The Practice were sold to cable for Monday-Friday runs and to broadcast stations for weekend runs. This has been the standard ever since with dramas such as Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, CSI, The West Wing, 24, and Without A Trace all getting similar treatment.

USA will continue to air the program next fall. If this cable/broadcast hybrid works for a stripped version of the show in syndication, we’ll see more deals like this for hour-long shows.

Meanwhile reruns of another hour-long show which was syndication in the ‘90’s, Baywatch, will return as a syndicated strip next fall handled by Litton Syndication. Baywatch, which ran on NBC in the 1989-90 season, and in first-run syndication from 1991 to 2001, was stripped from 1995-97 by All American/Pearson Television.

Link: (Broadcasting & Cable)