The New Season: NBC renews 'Law & Order'
NBC's long-running crime procedural "Law & Order" got a reprieve Sunday as network executives announced that the drama would return for its 18th season in the fall, despite suffering a sharp ratings drop-off.
Sister show "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" will also be back but is being shuttled over to NBC Universal's cable network USA, which will now run the original episodes of the spin-off about the New York criminal justice system. In a reversal of the usual syndication process, repeats of "Criminal Intent" will then air on NBC.
Series creator and executive producer Dick Wolf and NBC Universal executives cast the move as an inventive solution that would allow them to extract the most value out of the franchise, a network mainstay that has lost some of its pull in the last year. The mother ship, as the original "Law & Order" is called, averaged just 9 million viewers since it was moved to Friday nights this season, a drop of 19%. "Criminal Intent" has averaged 8.9 million, down 18%. ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," the most popular of the triumvirate, was already renewed earlier this season.)
"Once again, we're doing something that hasn't been done before," Wolf told reporters during an afternoon conference call. "This really is the future."
By turning to USA as a platform for "Criminal Intent," NBC Universal can spread out the costs of the program and reinforce the position of the top-rated cable network, which already runs repeats of "CI" and "SVU." Mark Graboff, president of NBC Universal Television West Coast, said the network's main aim was to keep all three series in front of an audience and noted that NBC now has "maximum flexibility" in deciding how to schedule repeats of "CI."
As part of the deal, Wolf was forced to cut production costs, which he said would be accomplished through "belt-tightening," not through casting changes, as many had expected. "The changes will not be visible to the viewer," said Wolf, who declined to say whether he agreed to trim his producer fees. Wolf also extended his relationship with NBC Universal until 2012, a deal he said would allow him to expand the reach of the franchise in foreign markets and develop new projects.
Wolf is hoping to stretch the run of the mother ship more than 20 seasons so he can beat the record set by "Gunsmoke" as the longest-airing prime-time drama.
The producer has blamed the show's audience declines this season on its Friday night time slot. It remains to be seen whether NBC will move "Law & Order" to a different night. The network is scheduled to announce its fall lineup Monday.