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'Law & Order': Court adjourned

Popular crime procedural on NBC, which changed the genre and created spinoffs and copycats, ends after its 20th season.

May 15, 2010|By Greg Braxton and Meg James, Los Angeles Times

The "Law & Order" mothership has been grounded, but its satellite franchises are still flying.

Though devoted fans of NBC's "Law & Order" may grieve over Friday's cancellation of the 20-year-old police and legal series — leaving it just one season short of surpassing "Gunsmoke" for the longest-running drama in TV history — they may find consolation in a new "Law & Order" set in Los Angeles. The latest L.A.-based "Law & Order," which has become known as "LOLA," doesn't have an official launch date yet, but one may be announced early next week at the annual network media presentations in New York.

NBC and "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf are expected to discuss "closure opportunities" for the landmark show, which has already wrapped production of its final season, and ways for it to link to the new spinoff show, which has been contemplated since last fall and is yet to be cast. Possibilities include a movie or special installments which could bring back cast members of the original "Law & Order."

"Law & Order," whose last episode will air on May 24, was one of the most influential shows in television history. It helped establish NBC as the No. 1 network at 10 p.m. — and helped guarantee that NBC stations and affiliates were dominant with their late local newscasts. It also was largely responsible for launching the police procedural genre and generating some of the medium's most successful shows, including " CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "NCIS."

"What 'Law & Order' has accomplished is nothing short of miraculous," TV historian Tim Brooks said. "It's one thing to reach this kind of record in the 1950s and 1960s, when there were more concentration of networks and less competition. But to last this long in prime time during this era is simply remarkable."

It also helped spawn one of the most lucrative franchises in television history. Estimates are that the original series and its two spinoffs evolved into a $2-billion business. The franchise was so strong seven years ago that people assumed that NBC parent company General Electric was buying Universal Studios and the Universal Television production studio, which produced the series, simply to get ownership of Wolf's profitable shows. A few years later, when NBC's prime-time schedule began to fall apart, NBC often would run "Law & Order" episodes 10 hours a week to keep ratings high, and the advertising dollars flowing into NBC.

The show proved so popular that reruns of "Law & Order" helped build Turner's TNT into a leading cable network. NBC Universal's USA cable channel also relied heavily on reruns of "Law & Order: SVU" to stay atop of the cable heap. Meanwhile, the original series was no less successful overseas, where it was broadcast in more than 200 territories around the world. Local productions of the series and its spinoffs also have been created in Great Britain, France and Russia.

On the East Coast, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg mourned the show's passing.

"Over the last 20 years, 'Law & Order' became a New York City institution. It began filming in the City at a time when few series did, and it helped pave the way for the more than 150 television shows based here today, including the 'Law & Order' spinoff 'Special Victims Unit,' which will continue," Bloomberg said in a statement.

Wolf, who has become very wealthy thanks to the franchise, remained quiet on Friday. In a statement, he said, "Never complain, never explain."

Intense negotiations in the last few days over the fate of "Law & Order" went down to "the 11th hour," sources familiar with the talks said. Discussions focused on the creative direction of the show as well as scheduling and financial considerations. Negotiations ultimately broke down over money and the number of episodes for a 21st season, said sources.

"Law & Order" is one of the network's most expensive dramas, and its ratings peaked several seasons ago. Viewership dropped below 8 million this season.

"There were a lot of factors," according to a source familiar with the talks. "At the end of the day, it was finally decided that it was time to transition to 'LOLA.'"

Times staff writer Joe Flint contributed to this report.

greg.braxton@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com

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