'L&O' part of bubble bunch

Future of veteran shows unclear

NBC's "Law & Order" has brought in former showrunner Rene Balcer to help with the show's remaining episodes as talks have begun between the network and the series' producers for another season of the 17-year-old procedural drama.

"L&O" is one of several long-running series whose futures are uncertain. ABC's utility players "According to Jim" and "George Lopez" have held steady while the network's new comedies have faltered, bolstering both series' chances to return for seventh seasons.

Then there is NBC's "Scrubs," which definitely is coming back for a seventh season with one big question mark -- whether it will be on NBC or ABC.

The broadcast networks make most of their money during their series' early run, usually around the third year. Under the extended term deals implemented by all broadcast networks, beginning in the fifth season (sixth for midseason shows), the networks usually have to pay a license fee for their series that equals the series' production costs.

If one factors in ratings premiums in the range of $100,000-$150,000 per episode paid by the networks that kick in after the fourth season as well as retroactive payments by the networks of a portion of the deficits incurred by the studios in the early years of the shows, it is no surprise that the nets are taking a careful look at their older series.

In the case of so-called bubble shows whose ratings are marginal, the networks have been making the case of bringing them back for a license fee less than 100% of the production cost.

Sources said NBC is going for fee cuts on its bubble shows this year. The modestly rated Friday drama "Las Vegas" recently was picked up for a fifth season at a lower cost, leading to, among other things, the departure of cast member Nikki Cox. It also is understood that the talks for the return of "L&O" involve some fee reductions as well.

That still can be good for the studios because their backend revenue from domestic and international sales often offsets the deficits and brings profit.

In the cases of "L&O" and "Vegas," both shows are owned by the network, which adds other factors to the equation.

For instance, after its current fourth season, "Vegas" has 87 episodes produced. Another season will bring it comfortably above the syndication threshold of 100 episodes, which is beneficial to the producer, NBC's sibling NBC Universal TV Studio.

Both "Jim," produced by ABC's sister studio ABC TV, and "Lopez," which hails from WBTV, were not on ABC's fall schedule, an indication that they might be nearing their end. But "Jim" showed spunk last week, and "Lopez" has done well enough against Fox's "American Idol" that both series are considered quite possible to return, though not necessarily at a license fee that covers 100% of the costs.

Things are far more complicated with "Scrubs" because there is another suitor for the ABC TV-produced show, ABC.

After locking up the entire cast of the show, including star Zach Braff, for a seventh season and signing a new deal with the hospital where the quirky comedy is being filmed, "Scrubs" is locked to come back.

Although NBC brass have expressed a commitment to the show, the network has moved the series around the schedule numerous times, with another scheduling move announced Monday.

Like last season, ABC, which needs an established single-camera comedy to launch its new half-hours in the format, is waiting in the wings to pick up the show, which was developed by ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson when he ran Touchstone TV. That leaves NBC with little room for maneuvering on the license fee. In May, NBC exercised its pickup option on "Scrubs" hours before the network's upfront presentation. Many expect things to go down to the wire again this year.

As for Balcer, he will serve as a consultant on "L&O" and is writing several of the season's remaining episodes. He served as an executive producer/showrunner on the series as well as on spinoff "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" until last spring.