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'Without a Trace' was a costly bet for TNT

February 3, 2010 | 12:51 pm


TNT's slogan is "We Know Drama," but maybe the cable channel doesn't know drama as well as it thinks it does. On Wednesday, TNT parent Time Warner disclosed in its fourth-quarter report that TNT had to write down more than $100-million on its purchase of repeat rights to the old CBS crime show "Without a Trace."

The channel, which has had big success with its steady diet of "Law & Order" reruns, was not so lucky with "Without a Trace," a drama about the FBI's Missing Person Unit, that ran on CBS from 2002 through last year. TNT bought the reruns for the show, which starred Anthony LaPaglia, in 2003 for about $1.4 million per episode. The write-down was for $104 million.

While "Without a Trace" had some strong years on CBS, by the time the show made its rerun debut on TNT in 2004, it had already started to fade.

There is always a risk in buying reruns. Although some shows, such as "Law & Order," live on for years (or decades), others have a much shorter lifespan. In buying the rerun rights to "Without a Trace" so soon after it had premiered on CBS, TNT was betting that it too would have staying power.

TNT bought the show from its sister company Warner Bros., which no doubt bet right in selling reruns so soon after its network debut. When to sell a show is also complicated. CBS has already sold rerun rights to "NCIS Los Angeles" to USA for more than $2 million, even though the show is only in its first season.

Of course, sometimes it is better to wait. A&E got a big bargain by buying rights to the CBS hit "Criminal Minds" for less than $1 million per episode before that drama became the massive hit it is today.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: The cast of "Without a Trace," from left: Enrique Murciano, Poppy Montgomery, Anthony LaPaglia, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Eric Close. Credit: CBS