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Coming to cable: all crime, all the time

‘A-Team’ coming back! NBC Universal to launch Sleuth network on Jan. 1
/ Source: Reuters

Just when detective dramas appear to be wearing thin with prime-time television viewers, NBC Universal unveiled plans Wednesday to start a cable channel devoted to TV cops and robbers of yesteryear.

The 24-hour Sleuth network, offering such Universal library titles as “Miami Vice” and “The A-Team,” will launch Jan. 1 through a distribution deal with Time Warner Cable that will initially reach just over 5 million homes.

The channel also will carry crime- and mystery-themed titles from Universal’s catalog of feature films, among them “Scarface,” “The Jackal,” “Casino,” “Sneakers” and “Mercury Rising.” Documentaries and reality shows will be added in the future, the company said.

NBC Universal, the media and entertainment division of General Electric Co., has no plans to make any current shows from its flagship broadcast network, NBC, available on its new cable outlet.

NBC’s “Law & Order” and its two prime-time spinoffs, ”Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent,” already are licensed for reruns on the USA and TNT cable networks, owned by NBC Universal and Time Warner Inc., respectively.

Instead, Sleuth will begin by featuring reruns of classic crime-fighting dramas from the 1980s.

In addition to “Miami Vice,” “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider,” which all originally aired on NBC, Sleuth’s initial lineup will include reruns of two ’80s-era shows that once ran on CBS -- “The Equalizer” and “Simon & Simon.”

“About 60 percent of the product was originally on NBC,” said Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal cable entertainment.

NBC Universal’s bid to create a niche channel devoted to reruns of old cops and crime shows comes at a time when many of the police “procedural” dramas that swept prime time in recent years are experiencing a ratings slump.

While the saturation of crime-solving dramas on network TV has made it difficult for some shows to sustain a mass audience, Gaspin said the smaller-scale economics of cable TV favor a venture like Sleuth.

“The difference here is you’re talking about a service that’s 24/7 for a particular genre in a marketplace that is about niche programming, and this is a fairly large niche,” Gaspin said. “So you don’t need a huge amount of people to watch your network at any given time to create a business.”

Within months of its launch, the channel plans to offer standard and high-definition digital versions of its telecasts and a video-on-demand service allowing subscribers to order some shows whenever they want to see them.

NBC Universal’s current roster of cable TV properties includes MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, Sci Fi and the USA networks, each with a subscriber base -- roughly 80 to 90 million -- that dwarfs the initial reach of Sleuth.