'Touched by an Angel' and other Big Four dramas are grabbing record fees for cable resurrection. If only guarantees for ratings success were as high as the prices.

Touched by an Angel, CBS’ divine do-gooder hit, is going to be touched by some serious cash real soon. In a development that has the industry’s eyes raised upward, reruns of the show are expected to be sold for close to $1 million per episode. Granted, that’s not the most heavenly price tag to date; Warner Bros. will make $1.2 million per episode selling ER reruns to Turner Broadcasting next year. But it does illuminate just how appealing dramas have become to cable networks. While half-hour sitcoms have traditionally dominated the rerun market, laugh-free hours are bestowing new blessings on TNT, USA, FX, A&E, and Lifetime, and for good reason: They easily outperform original cable fare, and the increased viewership translates into more ad dollars and better distribution. Case in point: FX’s biggest attraction used to be its own daytime collectibles program, Personal FX, which still pulls in 256,000 viewers per show. But now prime-time repeats of The X-Files and NYPD Blue are drawing up to a million more people each day, making FX a suddenly hot commodity — and one of cable’s fastest-growing nets.

There are other advantages. There’s money to be saved — ”Most [reruns] don’t need promotion,” says Edward Bleier, who heads up domestic cable distribution at Warner Bros.; ”when you zap by ER, you know what it is” — and there’s money to be made by other people. Actors and executive producers, who typically would get a flat rate for residuals, now often receive a percentage of the escalating syndication sales prices. The big winners, though, are the studios. Since they make money on the series they produce for NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox only when shows are syndicated, studios can finally recoup huge deficits.

To get an idea of how quickly the value of drama has skyrocketed, consider the following: In 1994, Universal became one of the first studios to cash in on the cable trend, selling reruns of the solid NBC hit Law & Order to A&E for about $155,000 an episode; last year, the studio got $275,000 from USA for repeats of New York Undercover, a far less successful show. Dick Wolf, who produces both, loves seeing L&O draw A&E’s highest daytime ratings — one million viewers per episode. He only wishes it hadn’t been a low-cost pioneer. In fact, if the Emmy-winning L&O were sold today, it would likely command six times as much money.

”It’s kind of ironic that New York Undercover is more expensive to buy than Law & Order,” says Wolf, who points out an added bonus: The repeats on A&E have ”absolutely increased our NBC audience.”

That’s often the case. When Sisters reruns first aired on Lifetime in 1994, the awareness of originals on NBC immediately heightened. ”Cable repeats definitely help the broadcast networks,” says USA Network entertainment president Rod Perth. ”NBC credited us with reviving Wings, and our repeats of Murder, She Wrote boosted that show on CBS.”

First-run syndication, once the poor stepchild to network programming, is enjoying the ride too. Universal sold reruns of the action hours Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to USA for $300,000 each. And even long-forgotten shows can find new life: The Nashville Network bought The Dukes of Hazzard library from Warner Bros. for well over $10 million; not only has it improved the net’s ratings, the show has given TNN a younger audience. ”There’s a whole generation of 15-year-old boys who never saw it,” says Warner’s Bleier.

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