|LOS ANGELES — “Law & Order,” the long-running NBC series about crime and punishment, rarely shies away from inflammatory topics, and Friday night it takes on one of the most contentious — abortion — for just the third time in the program’s 20 seasons.|
In the show’s customary ripped-from-the-headlines style, the new episode focuses on the murder, in a church, of a doctor who performs late-term abortions. Though the episode, which will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time, begins with the disclaimer that the story “is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event,” its outlines closely track the case of Dr. George R. Tiller, a prominent provider of late-term abortions who was shot and killed in a church in Wichita, Kan., on May 31.
Leading up to what is essentially a character-driven debate about abortion, NBC has tread a fine line between promoting the episode and its topic to attract viewers to an otherwise slow night of television and trying not to draw too much attention to it.
The network ranks last this season among the four major broadcast networks in total viewers and among young adults. It has promoted its abortion episode to television writers, sending a screening copy along with a letter from Dick Wolf, the creator and an executive producer of the series, who called it “the most controversial episode of the series” since it first addressed the topic in its debut season.
The network similarly promoted an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” that was broadcast on Wednesday that dealt with pedophila.
But Mr. Wolf and NBC executives declined to be interviewed about the decision to explore the topic of abortion. In response to questions, NBC and the producers issued a statement that said: “For 20 seasons the Emmy-winning ‘Law & Order’ has explored a variety of controversial topics, and the episode ‘Dignity’ does just that. Viewers will see a balanced, thought-provoking drama about abortion.”
“Law & Order” has twice before addressed abortion, in 1991 with “Life Choice,” a first-season episode about the bombing of an abortion clinic, and in 1995, its fifth season, with “Progeny,” which also focused on the murder of a doctor who provided abortions.
Friday’s episode does weave some significant twists of plot and character into the drama, with police officers and assistant district attorneys sometimes taking forceful stands on one side of the abortion debate or the other, only to later express doubt when their involvement in the case becomes more personal.
Abortion has been a sensitive topic for networks and advertisers at least since 1972, when an episode of “Maude” on CBS wrestled with the topic. The broadcast drew many complaints and most advertisers shunned the episode when it was repeated during the summer.
The Fox network said in July that it would not show an episode of its popular animated series “Family Guy” dealing with abortion that would have shown this season. Fox said in a statement that although it would not broadcast the episode, “we fully support the producers’ right to make the episode and distribute it in whatever way they want to ‘Family Guy’ fans.” The program’s producers sponsored a live reading of the script last summer to promote the show’s nomination for an Emmy for best comedy series, and they said it would be included on a DVD of the season’s episodes.
Carrie Drinkwater, a senior vice president for broadcast television at MPG, a media planning company, said that most advertisers have clear guidelines about when they will not advertise on an episode of a show that deals with a topic like abortion. It is likely that some scheduled advertisers dropped out of Friday’s broadcast, she said. She said while her firm has clients that sometimes advertise on “Law & Order,” none had been scheduled to have commercial spots in this episode.
An NBC executive said that the network had sold a full complement of advertising for the episode, but he declined to identify which companies would be advertising.