|NEW YORK -- "Law & Order," the crime procedural that has been a fixture of NBC's schedule for 17 seasons, may move to cable this fall in an effort to stretch out the run of the ratings-poor but profitable show.|
TNT, which already airs repeats of the drama, is in negotiations with NBC Universal Television Studio to broadcast new episodes of "Law & Order" if NBC decides not to renew it for another season, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
The cable network and studio declined to comment, as did Dick Wolf, the show's creator and executive producer.
The move would help extend the life of Wolf's iconic program, which spawned several spin-offs and is close to matching "Gunsmoke's" 20-year record as the longest-running drama in prime time. Sales of "Law & Order" reruns to TNT and foreign markets generate about $40 million in profit a year for NBC Universal.
But the program has faltered since its shift from Wednesday to Friday nights this season, shedding about one-fifth of its audience to an average of 9 million viewers.
In the last few months, NBC executives have been contemplating whether to renew "Law & Order" and its "Criminal Intent" spin-off, which is down 18% compared with last season. ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," the most popular of the three, has been guaranteed a place on next season's schedule.)
Shifting the drama to TNT would be a natural fit, as the basic cable channel already offers a steady stream of "Law & Order" repeats, sometimes as many as eight a day. But the move could require Wolf to dramatically scale back production costs to meet a cable budget.