|The cost of Law & Order is rising to new heights. |
NBC may be held up for a stunning $550 million a year if the network wants to keep airing the three hit L&O series, according to the New York Times. The three-season renewal deal sought by series production company Universal Television would make every episode worth about $8 million and cost the Peacock more than $1.6 billion overall.
Universal is reportedly wrapping the trio of hour dramas, created by überproducer Dick Wolf, into one negotiation package, although only one series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is actually up for renewal at the end of the coming season. The original Law & Order and the other spinoff, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, have two seasons left on their current contracts. (Wolf's Law & Order-branded reality series Crime & Punishment, which is running this summer on NBC, is not part of these negotiations.)
If NBC bows to Universal's demand, it would make for the most lucrative entertainment deal in television history. (Sports franchise deals are in another league.) Wolf and Universal's clout comes not only from the series' consistently high ratings--each handily wins its time slot--and their success in reruns, but also because Wolf & Co. are developing a fourth drama in the franchise for the 2004-05 season, which, unlike the other two spin-offs, will play up the legal angle more than the cop angle.
If NBC doesn't cough up, that potentially successful show could be sold to a rival network, minus its Law & Order title, but not its distinctive New York based ripped-from-the-headlines content.
Currently the new show is dubbed Four and is designed for a repertory cast. "Some of the biggest actors in New York are interested because they would not have to appear every week," Universal Television Production president David Kissinger tells the Times.
The newspaper also refers to several other unnamed Universal executives spinning out the information that development on the new show will not proceed further until the future of the established series is known. "The real negotiation has not started," David Goldhill, president of Universal Television, tells the Times, insisting his company didn't intend "getting into a fight" with our "great" broadcast partner NBC, "but clearly, we will do what's best for the franchise and the shows."
Universal, Wolf and NBC refused to comment on the negotiations Monday.
Universal, which would like the deal inked by December, is reportedly willing to play hardball with NBC and shop SVU to another network once its contract expires.
In the past, NBC has given in to costly demands from the producers of its hit series, notably shelling out the big bucks to Warner Bros. to keep Friends and ER. Although the overall L&O price tag is much bigger than the $280 million the network paid in 1998 to hold on to the hospital drama, the price per episode is not quite as much. ER once cost as much as $13 million per episode, but that has been sliced back now to between $8 and $10 million. The medical series rates higher than Law & Order with the 18-49 demographic favored by advertisers, but doesn't repeat nearly as well.
The three L&O series provide NBC with 70 to 72 episodes of original programming each season and endless opportunities to plug scheduling holes with successful reruns. During the recent May sweeps, the programs filled almost 30 hours of air time. Law & Order, which aired its 300th episode last month, is 13 seasons old, but still the number one show in its Wednesday, 10 p.m. slot, providing a profitable lead in to local news and the Tonight show. SVU has been a hit on Fridays for four seasons and this fall is moving to Tuesdays, where it should attract even higher ratings and more advertising dollars for the network. Criminal Intent, only two years old, scores big numbers on Sundays, where it also boosts local late news ratings.
Universal won't reveal the current per-episode price, but the company claims lower-rated series are paid more. "NBC has it at a fantastic bargain," says Kissinger.
According to the Times, one of Universal's negotiating tools is a report Primetime Programming Cost Analysis by Richard A. Bilotti, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, that estimates that during 2001-02 Law & Order was the most profitable scripted show on NBC, contributing $160.7 million in gross profit, 15 percent of gross profit from regular series for the network, where overall prime-time profitability was $681.5 million.
While NBC is considered vulnerable because it has only one more season of Friends, is likely to soon say bye-bye to Frasier and has split with The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, the Peacock is not completely handcuffed. Universal is owned by deeply in debt Vivendi, which has the studio up for sale. NBC is among the major companies that have expressed interest in owning at least the production arm of the studio (which, of course, includes the Law & Order franchise) and its cable channels, USA Network and the Sci-Fi Channel.
"There is a certain irony that NBC is a potential buyer," an unnamed executive involved in the L&O negotiations tells the Times.
If NBC has its way, it would also be a certain, pardon the pun, poetic justice.