NBC Universal is considering a scenario in which original episodes of the low-rated but highly lucrative Law & Order would shift from NBC to TNT after this season, with production continuing at a drastically reduced price.
Multiple sources tell B&C that TNT, which remains heavily reliant on the show’s reruns, first proposed the idea of picking up the originals to NBCU several months ago.
The offer came after word surfaced that NBC was contemplating canceling the venerable 17-year-old drama, which has seen its ratings sink further this season following its shift to the Friday night graveyard.
NBCU, which produces the series in association with Wolf Films, has a vested interest in keeping the so-called “mothership” of the $3 billion-plus L&O franchise alive beyond this season.
It has long-term commitments in place from TNT to pay $1 million per episode for L&O reruns, as well as international territories, which are believed to kick in an additional guaranteed $800,000 for each show.
To continue, the production budget of L&O would have to be slashed far below its current $4 million per episode cost. Executive Producer Dick Wolf was recently reported to be looking at making budget cuts of $11 million per season, or $500,000 per episode, to keep it on NBC.
Fewer new episodes would likely be produced for TNT, since basic cable traditionally places smaller series orders than broadcast networks.
An NBC spokesman said “it is premature to speculate on what will happen at this point.” TNT declined to comment on “speculation.”
A spokeswoman for Wolf, who has frequently said that he would like to see L&O become the longest-running drama in TV history (Gunsmoke now holds the record at 20 years), noted, "It is premature to speculate on any decisions regarding the future of Law & Order and/or Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
L&O is averaging a 2.7 rating/8 share in adults 18-49 this season, down 23% from the 3.5/9 it was earning a year ago at 10 p.m. Wednesdays.
Initially, it had appeared that NBC would renew L&O at next week’s upfronts and scratch L&O: Criminal Intent, but sources say the thinking has shifted in recent days. Now, they say, CI could return to the network in some form next season but others still expect it to vanish.
NBC has already renewed the third L&O spoke, Special Victims Unit, for next season.
While the L&O reruns are no longer generating the massive ratings that they once did for TNT, they continue to deliver for the cable network, which runs 28 hours of L&O episodes each week.
Cable-exclusive originals of L&O airing on TNT could help breathe new life into the ratings of the reruns, while boosting its slate of originals with a well-known brand name.
After enjoying success with The Closer, TNT is introducing two new series this summer, Heartland and Saving Grace, along with the miniseries, The Company.