TW takes $104 mil write-off on 'Trace'

TNT paid $1.35 mil an episode for syndication rights in 2003

It was a blemish on Time Warner's otherwise spotless fourth-quarter balance sheet that beat Wall Street expectations.

The company took a $104 million write-off on losses stemming from the off-network syndication run of "Without a Trace" on TNT, a cautionary tale that shows cable nets' early bets on fledgling broadcast procedurals don't always pay off.

TNT bought the rights to "Trace" from sister studio Warner Bros. at the start of the series' second season in fall 2003, when the crime drama was flying high behind "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" on Thursday night.

The cable network shelled out $1.35 million an episode, at the time the highest price TNT had paid for an off-network series.

That number was eclipsed a year later when Spike TV and USA ponied up $1.9 million for two spinoff series, "CSI: NY" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and TNT added another Warner Bros.-produced crime procedural, "Cold Case," for $1.4 million an episode.

TNT started repurposing "Trace" in 2004 and launched it as a nightly strip in June 2006. It struggled mighty, slipping from what the venerable "Law & Order" had delivered in the 7 p.m. slot and drawing a disproportionally older audience that was hard to sell to advertisers. "Trace's" run on TNT ended last year, and Warner Bros. is looking for another cable buyer.

In an indication that "Trace" might not be the only off-network underperformer at TNT, "Case" -- also sold at the beginning of its second season on CBS -- has also been wobbly in its early ratings performance on the cable net.

Similarly, with its $1.9 million price tag, "CSI: NY," which was snapped up by Spike a couple of months after its launch, did not perform nearly as well as the original "CSI," which Spike acquired for $1.6 million.

The "Trace"-related TW red ink is certain to give TNT and USA Network a pause. The cable networks in the fall broke the record for off-network rights to broadcast dramas, shelling out almost $2.3 million an episode for two very young CBS crime procedurals: sophomore "The Mentalist" and freshman "NCIS: Los Angeles," respectively.