Friday, May 21, 2010

Law & Order R.I.P.?

It was a week ago that NBC made an announcement that was nothing short of shocking to many. After twenty seasons on the air, Law & Order had been cancelled. As of this season the series was tied with Gunsmoke as the longest running primetime drama on American network television. What is more it also spawned no less than five spin offs  (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal IntentLaw & Order: Trial By Jury, Conviction, and the upcoming Law & Order: Los Angeles), as well as a British adaptation (Law & Order:; Order: UK). The final episode is set ot air on this coming Monday, May 21, 2010.

Law & Order was created by Dick Wolf in 1988. The concept of the series was in some way simple--for the first half of the show cover detectives investigating a crime, while the second half would the prosecuting attorneys as they tried the suspect of the crime. Of course, the concept was hardly original. After Wolf took his idea to then president of Universal Television, Kerry McCluggage, who pointed out its similarity to the 1963 show Arrest and Trial. The first half of the show covered Detective Sgt. Nick Anderson ( played by Ben Gazzara) as he investigated a crime and the second half covered defence attorney John Egan (play Chuck Connors) as he defended the suspect that Anderson had arrested in court. The hook on the series was that each week one of the leads would have to be proven wrong. What set Law & Order apart from Arrest and Trial was that it focused on the prosecution rather than the defence attorney (as only a few legal dramas have) and Wolf wanted a much higher degree of realism as the show proceeded from police investigation to prosecution of a crime.

On the basis of the idea of the show alone, Dick Wolf was able to interest Fox in Law & Order, who ordered thirteen episodes. Unfortunately, this would be reversed by then Fox president Barry Diller, who felt that Law & Order was a poor fit for the network. Wolf then went to CBS, who actually ordered a pilot "Everybody's Favourite Bagman (which would be aired as the series' sixth episode on NBC)." Although CBS liked the pilot, they ultimately turned the show down as they felt it had no actors who could become big stars. It was in the summer of 1989 that Brandon Tartikoff, then the head of NBC's Entertainment Division, and Warren Littlefield, then Vice Presdident of NBC Entertainment, viewed the pilot. Despite some initial doubts, they ordered a full season of Law & Order to air in 1990.

Law & Order debuted on September 13, 1990. The original cast included George Dzunda as Sgt Max Greevey, Chris Noth as Detective Mike Logan, Michael Moriarty as Chief Assistant District  Attorney Ben Stone, and Richard Brooks as Assistant District Attorney Eriq La Salle. The first of many cast changes occurred at the end of the first season. Dzunda left after first season ended, his place being taken by Paul Sorvino as Sgt. Phil Cerreta. He would leave at the end of the second season due to the show's exhausting shooting schedule. It was with the series' third season that Jerry Orbach replaced Sorvino as Detective Lennie Briscoe, possibly the series best known and best loved character. He remained with the show until the show's twelfth season, after which he appeared as a supporting character on the spin off Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Sadly, it would be his last role, as he died from prostate cancer shortly thereafter.

Interestingly enough for a series which run twenty years and produced five spin offs, Law & Order was not a smash hit from the beginning. The series received respectable, but not spectacular ratings in in its first three seasons. It was with the series' fourth season that it broke into Nielsen's top twenty five shows for the year, at #23. For the next several seasons Law & Order would remain in the top 25, even breaking into the top 10 at #7 in its twelfth season. Unfortunately, Law & Order would not remain so high in the ratings.The ratings began to decline after Jerry Orbach's death. The show's sixteenth season would be the first that Law & Order did not to rank in the top twenty five in eight years. In its seventeenth season Law & Order would drop even more dramatically. Scheduled in a Friday night death slot, it only ranked #54 out of all primetime shows on the air for the year. While its ratings rose to respectable numbers in its 18th season, it would suffer another dramatic drop in ratings in its 19th season, ranking only 64th out of all primetime shows on the air for the year.

While Law & Order was still a high rated show it produced several spin offs. The first was Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which centred on the NYPD's Special Victims Unit which investigates sex based crimes. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit debuted on September 20, 1999. The second was Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which centred on NYPD's Major Case Squad. It debuted on September 30, 2001. The third was Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Centred on criminal trials, it was much more of a legal drama than Law & Order. It is perhaps for this reason it only lasted thirteen episodes. It debuted on March 3, 2005. Conviction was the first and only spinoff not to bear the "Law & Order" name. It centred on a group of young district attorneys headed by Alexandra Cabot, with Stephanie March reprising her role from Law & Order. It too only lasted thirteen episodes. The latest spin off, Law  & Order: Los Angeles, is set to debut on NBC this fall.

Sadly, it would seem that the underlying reason that Law & Order was cancelled was its ratings. As to why a series that for long time very high rated fell preciptuously in the ratings, I suspect that came down to a number of reasons. Among these was the death of Jerry Orbach. Even though Law & Order was an ensemble, for many of us Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe was the show's undisputed star. For many fans of Orbach and his character, then, watching Law & Order following his death may have simply reminded them of what the show, and to an extent themselves, had lost. Law & Order would not be the first show whose ratings to suffer a result of the death of a star. Bonanza also dropped dramatically in the ratings following the death of Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright.

Another factor which contributed to falling ratings for Law & Order was the Friday night death slot NBC assigned it in its 17th season. It can be no coincidence that the show's ratings dropped disastrously that season. The simple fact is that Friday night is one of the rated nights for television in the whole week. It is the night when many go out for dinner or a movie. At the very least they are not watching television. Indeed, if ratings for Law & Order were not what they should have been this season, it is perhaps because the show once more began this season in a Friday night death slot.

Of course, ratings are not the only reason Law & Order was cancelled, demographics probably played a role as well. The past many years NBC has claimed that it wants to reach the 18-49 year old demographic. Unfortunately for Law & Order, 64% of its audience are fifty years and older. In other words , out of the 7.3 million viewers who watch Law & Order, 4.7 million are over fifty, leaving only 2.6 million viewers that NBC claims they want to attract. Speaking as one of that 18 to 49 years old demographic that NBC claims they want to watch their shows, I would be very unhappy if it turned out that NBC cancelled Law & Order because of the age of its audience. Not only do I think that programming only younger people (even if I am one) is none too wise from a programming standpoint (it is the folks over 50 who have disposable income, not those of us under 50), I think it would be downright, (fill in with the obscenity of your choice) hypocritical for NBC to cancel Law & Order because of its audiences' ages. After all, this is the network who in their folly kicked Conan O'Brien off The Tonight Show (who appeals to those of us under the age of 50) and reinstated Jay Leno as host (whose appeal is strictly limited to those over the age of 60).

As to the future of Law & Order creator and executive producer Dick Wolf has not given up hope. Monday Wolf said Law & Order " in a medically-induced coma, and we are hoping for a cure." Indeed, it seems possible that Law & Order could simply move to a cable network. The USA Network has shown reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and  Law & Order: Criminal Intent for years. When it faced cancellation in 2007, USA picked the series up and has been showing new episodes ever since. It would seem that USA could then pick Law & Order up. TNT has been showing reruns of Law & Order for years as well, so that the series could find a new home on that network. Indeed, it has been reported by some sources that in the wake of the cancellation, Dick Wolf has shopped the series to TNT among other places.

Regardless, even if Law & Order does not find a new home, it has had the longest run of any network drama besides Gunsmoke. It also produced five spin offs, which may well be more than any other series in the history of American network television. While its many loyal viewers may lament its passing, reruns of the series will be airing for years to come.

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