|Wolf finds 'L&Os' on the bubble|
After 17 years on the air, it could soon be case closed for at least one of the "Law & Order" branded skeins.
As early as this week, series creator Dick Wolf is expected to sit down with top NBC brass to discuss the future of the all-important Peacock franchise. One of the chief items on the menu: Reducing costs -- and increasing ratings -- for both the Mothership (as the original skein is called) and its youngest spinoff, "Criminal Intent."
Nobody's talking, but there's a good chance Wolf will look to cut above-the-line costs on the shows, perhaps by eliminating or reducing roles for some veteran. (One thesp, Fred Thompson, might be ready to ankle, declaring this weekend he's mulling a run for president).
Such moves -- necessitated in part by the fiscal discipline mandated under the NBC 2.0 cost-cutting initiative -- could also help to improve the skeins' demographic makeup, which lately has skewed older than NBC would like.
But there's a chance cast changes won't be enough. Though it's highly unlikely NBC would ax both shows in a single year -- particularly when the net is still in the ratings basement -- insiders believe one of the skeins could simply be canceled.
Wolf, via a rep, declined an interview request, saying only, "I'm hopeful all three shows will be back."
Any change to the status quo on the "L&O" skeins could have a major ripple effect on NBC Universal's bottom line.
The "L&O" brand was one of the chief reasons behind the Peacock's acquisition of Universal. Combined syndie revenue for all three shows is enormous -- billions of dollars -- with every single produced episode of an "L&O" skein bringing in a seven-figure sum for the conglom.
That fact alone would seem to ensure the survival of the "L&O" skeins for a while. Canceling any of the shows means cutting off a guaranteed source of profit -- and replacing it with a show that will likely lose money, at least in the short run.
But what's good for NBC U isn't necessarily good the NBC Television Network.
While "Law & Order: SVU" remains a powerhouse on Tuesday nights -- and has already been renewed for next season -- the other two "L&O" skeins have struggled after being moved to tougher timeslots.
"CI," now facing off against the NBC U-produced Fox hit "House," is averaging a 3.1/8 in the adults 18-49 demo on Tuesdays. That's down 6% vs. its performance on Sunday nights last season, but well below what it had been averaging a few years ago.
The Mothership, meanwhile, notches a 2.9/9 in its new Friday slot. It's boosted the net's performance a bit on the night, but compared with a year ago, "L&O" is off a sharp 21%.
Not helping matters has been the brand's overexposure in recent years.
In the same way soda makers get in trouble for releasing too many flavors of a brand -- Crystal Pepsi, anyone? -- NBC U is guilty of relying far too heavily on the "L&O" brand.
Skeins air multiple times per week on cablers USA, TNT and Bravo, allowing auds near on-demand availability of the brand.
That exposure might be OK if NBC hadn't also relied so heavily on "L&O" during the early 2000s. During the Peacock's darkest hours, net devoted literally half its 22-hour primetime sked to one form of "Law" or "Order."
Last year saw the short-lived addition of "Law & Order: Trial by Jury." And NBC still airs repeats of the franchise Saturdays.
"The problem with 'Law & Order' is it's everywhere," one industry observer said. "It's become a victim of its own success in a way."
Nonetheless, overall numbers for the two endangered "L&O" skeins aren't that bad, even at reduced levels. Skeins also still fetch premium ad dollars due to upscale viewers.
It's worth noting NBC has cycled through dozens of new shows in recent years that have scored lower ratings, including "L&O" replacements such as the quickly canceled "Kidnapped." Net is also standing behind some current skeins with lower numbers ("Friday Night Lights," "30 Rock").
The difference is that, despite Wolf's tight controls on costs, older shows simply cost a lot more than new skeins, as thesps and writers negotiate better deals.
Reilly, meanwhile, needs coin -- and timeslots -- to devote to new shows with a shot at breaking out as big hits, like "Heroes" did this fall.
NBC has also chosen to focus its promotional energies on newer skeins, telling America to "Save the cheerleader, save the world" by watching "Heroes."
That's left little room, relatively, to tubthump the "L&O" brand -- particularly the Friday night flavor.
Same dilemma faces NBC -- and other nets -- on several veteran shows this spring.
Peacock only decided to bring back "Las Vegas" for another, likely final season after producers cut two cast members.
ABC will no doubt have similar talks with the producers of "George Lopez," while NBC has made it clear it's not anxious to renew the ABC TV Studio-produced "Scrubs" at the rate the studio is requesting. (Latter skein might simply hop over to the ABC Television Network).
While Wolf and NBC will begin talking about the future this week, it could be a while before any firm decisions are made.
Part of the process will be how NBC's 2007-08 development turns out. If Reilly's new crop of dramas disappoints, the net is more likely to hold on to all three "L&O"-branded skeins.
It'll also be interesting to see how creative Wolf, Reilly and NBC U supremo Jeff Zucker get. It might make sense, for example, to have two of the "L&O" skeins produce few episodes but share a timeslot, reducing repeats in the process.
Meanwhile, even though Wolf is a businessman, there's one other reason the producer will be pushing hard to save the Mothership. Now in its 17th season, the skein needs four more years to become TV's longest-running primetime drama.
In an unrelated development, former "Law & Order" showrunner Rene Balcer is returning to the show as a consultant. He's expected to work a few weeks to help wrap up scripts for the last part of the season.