NBC is moving ``Law & Order: Criminal Intent,'' one of its three New York City-based police shows from producer Dick Wolf, to sister cable channel USA Network, and is keeping the original ``Law & Order'' on NBC for an 18th season.
The announcement, which NBC and Wolf made in a teleconference today, comes a day before the major networks unveil their fall prime-time schedules during a week in television known as the upfront. Once the networks present their shows, starting with NBC tomorrow, they begin negotiations with advertisers over commercial costs.
The shift to cable of one of NBC's benchmark shows is the first indication that NBC, a New York-based unit of General Electric Co. (GE:US), is turning in a new direction to lift the network out of fourth place in audience ratings, its position for the past three years behind ABC, CBS and Fox.
``They must feel very confident in the programs they have in development,'' said Brad Adgate, research director for the ad agency Horizon Media. ``They are heavily laden with drama so the network is thinking they can deliver more desirable viewers than what the `Law and Order' franchise has been doing for the past few years.''
NBC said it has ordered a full season, 22 episodes, of ``Criminal Intent'' and, in an unusual twist, will run them on NBC after they premiere on USA, a cable channel that NBC Universal took over in 2004. Until now, only reruns of ``Law & Order'' shows have appeared on cable, channels that include USA, Bravo and TNT.
``Our goal was, as a company, to keep all three `Law & Order' franchises robust,'' said Marc Graboff, president of NBC's entertainment operations in Burbank, California. ``We had to figure out a way to do it. This gives us maximum flexibility of schedule.''
Wolf and NBC have been negotiating for months over the future of ``Law & Order'' which premiered on Sept. 13, 1990, and remains one of the longest-running dramas in television history, and of ``Criminal Intent,'' which began on NBC on Sept. 30, 2001.
Wolf's other show on NBC, ``Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,'' which debuted Sept. 20, 1999, has already been renewed for the 2007-2008 season.
The recent round of negotiations largely focused on production costs, with NBC in the midst of a $750 million cost-cutting effort and Wolf eager to keep all three shows on the air.
Wolf called the solution ``a win-win for everybody'' and said viewers would see no artistic difference in ``Criminal Intent'' on USA, either in the look of the show or its cast.
He said certain financial concessions were made as a way to keep all three of his shows on the air. Asked if that meant his production company would earn smaller profits for moving ``Criminal Intent'' to cable, he said, ``No comment. No comment. No comment.''
By keeping ``Law & Order'' on its broadcast schedule, NBC is extending its chance to surpass ``Gunsmoke,'' a Western that aired on CBS from 1955 to 1975, as the longest running TV program.
All three of the Wolf shows have enjoyed strong ratings over the years, yet like other NBC programs, have lost viewers as television watching has spread across cable.
A fourth police drama from Wolf, ``Law & Order: Trial By Jury,'' aired for several months on NBC in 2005 before it was canceled.
Overall viewership on network television during this prime time season is 3 percent smaller than last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
NBC has been especially hurt by changing habits and tastes.
Many of its newer shows in recent years won more applause from critics than viewers, keeping it behind ABC, CBS and Fox in the key measures of overall audience and viewers aged 18 to 49, those who determine the highest advertising rates.
In the first week of May, the most recent period for which Nielsen has complete ratings, ``Law & Order'' was tied with two others shows as the 33rd most watched of the week. ``SVU'' was ranked 20th and ``Criminal Intent'' 43rd.
With a week left in the current season, NBC is averaging 9 million viewers a night for the season, compared with 12.5 million for CBS Corp. (CBS:US), 10.3 million for News Corp. (NWSA:US)'s Fox network and 9.8 million for ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co. (DIS:US)
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