'L&O' stays with NBC; 'CI' to USA

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After months of intense negotiations, NBC Universal and Dick Wolf closed a deal during the weekend to bring back "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" with full-season 22-episode orders. But like in any good drama, the resolution of the cliffhanger came with a twist — the mothership series will return to NBC, while the spinoff will move to NBC Universal's USA Network with a second window on NBC.

As part of the pact, Wolf has extended his overall deal with NBC Universal by four years, keeping his Wolf Films at NBC Universal TV Studio through 2012.

The pickups for "L&O" and "L&O: CI," along with the earlier renewal of "Law & Order: SVU," will keep the "L&O" franchise intact for another year.

"NBC is returning 'Law & Order' — a series that has been critically important to the network — in originals and has flexibility in terms of repurposing 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' as the network launches its slate of new series," NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker said. "(Moving) 'L&O: CI' to USA is a real paradigm-shifter. Adding such a bona fide established, successful show to USA's already powerful lineup would make the network's No. 1 position on cable even more dominant and would enable it to emerge as the fifth television network along with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox."

USA has the syndication rights to "CI" and has been running repeats of the crime drama for the past year and a half.

TNT, the longtime syndication home of the main "L&O," had been looking to take over that series if it wasn't renewed by NBC. Zucker acknowledged that TNT "expressed interest, but it never got to the point that it was going to happen."

The three "L&O" series ranked as the top three off-network primetime series on basic cable through the first four months of 2007 in adults 25-54, led by "CI" on USA.

Reversing the usual broadcast-to-cable airings order is rare but not unprecedented. A few years back, ABC experimented with a second window of USA's hit "Monk."

Although the main "L&O" has been an institution on NBC for 17 years, its high production costs and softening ratings had made NBC take a long, hard look at the prospects for the series. To return for another season, "L&O" had to be able to do so at a reduced license fee. The reached agreement will allow for that, Wolf said.

"There will be a real belt-tightening, like a 40-year-old trying to fit into his military uniform," Wolf said. "But my guarantee is that it won't be visible to the viewers. The show is going to be undiminished and as good as it's ever been."

"CI," which is a six-year-old show and also expensive, is faced with new economic realities as well as it moves to cable, where series budgets are lower. The second window on NBC should alleviate some of the financial strain.

There will be "no significant cast changes" on either series beyond the normal cast reshuffles associated with the "L&O" franchise, Wolf said. "None of the comfort-zone stars are being changed," he said.

Wolf and Zucker wouldn't elaborate on scheduling plans for "L&O" for next season. In its current Friday 10 p.m. slot, it averages a 2.7 rating/8 share in adults 18-49 and 9.0 million viewers overall. Sources had speculated that, from a financial standpoint, even with significant cost cuts, "L&O" would be hard to sustain on the low-traffic, low-ad-revenue Friday night, but its economic standing would improve if it was moved to another night.

With its renewal, the mothership "L&O" series is closing in on "Gunsmoke," the longest running drama series, which was on the air for 20 years.

Wolf said surpassing "Gunsmoke" is his "ultimate dream."

"I certainly don't expect ('L&O's" upcoming 18th season) to be its final one," he said.
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