After a record-tying two decades on television, Law & Order, the show that wouldn’t die, is now officially dead.
NBC Entertainment President Angela Bromstad informed Executive Producer Dick Wolf of the decision earlier this week and announced it publicly Friday morning. The move is an abrupt reversal of her vow, made just five months ago, that, “I’m a Law & Order junkie. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for not having Law & Order break the record.”
Wolf issued a statement Friday: “Never complain. Never explain.”
But sometimes the head wins out over the heart, and that’s what finally happened here. Years of behind-the-scenes maneuvering kept Law & Order long past its time. The path-breaking drama, which in 1990 essentially invented cops-and-courts TV as we know it now, is a zombie, a ratings dud, beloved by its most loyal fans but otherwise so overplayed and underappreciated that at this point the show’s cancellation must seem to NBC executives like a mercy-killing.
In response Wolf issued a statement Friday: “Never complain. Never explain.”
One version of the story has negotiations breaking down over Wolf’s refusal to make financial concessions; another blames NBC for refusing to settle for lower-than-hoped-for license fees from cable channel TNT; still a third holds that, after years of dreadful new-series development, the network is trying to wipe its slate clean and demonstrate confidence in its new shows leading into next week’s upfront presentation to advertisers. "I always think Dick and NBC are locked in an incredibly sick co-dependent, abusive relationship and these flare-ups are their idea of foreplay," said one source close to the franchise. "Dick would throw anything, except his own money, under the bus to keep the mothership on course for the record. As usual NBC asked him to bring the budget under control, and Dick, as usual, balked. And so for the nth time, NBC is threatening to leave Dick, this time for good. All the other times, they've come crawling back and apologized.”
Of course, Law & Order will never actually go away. It will live eternally in cable reruns and, in all likelihood, continue to throw off spinoff series every few years. NBC just announced it’s picking up Law & Order: Los Angeles for next season.
Wolf and NBC have gone all Cuban Missile Crisis with the series before, but this time no one blinked. The most recent standoff was in 2008, when renewal negotiations were held up for weeks as the two sides haggled over fine points—including a proposed pay cut for Wolf, who earns around $300,000 per episode for the original series (and $250,000 apiece for the spinoffs). In 2007, Law & Order: Criminal Intent stayed on “the bubble”—awaiting renewal—until the last possible moment, when the two sides struck a deal to move first-run episodes to NBC-owned cable channel USA.
Ratings for Law & Order have declined precipitously in recent years and production costs have skyrocketed, mostly from salaries paid to the principal actors.
Wolf and NBC have always been at odds over the reason for the ratings drop. In Wolf’s version, General Electric flogged his series to death, using reruns to fill holes in a prime-time schedule that increasingly looked like Swiss cheese and then running the episodes on a loop on USA and Bravo. The show is so versatile because episodes are self-contained, and so it made easy filler when Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, ER and, most recently, The Jay Leno Show, slinked off the air. In 2001, episodes of the show were airing continuously among NBC, A&E, TNT, and USA—such that you could rarely turn on the television and not be able to find one episode of one of the Law & Order shows somewhere.
The network has also struggled to find suitable replacements for their old hits, so Law & Order often suffers from weak lead-in shows. Since Leno’s 10 p.m. talk show went off the air this winter, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the strongest performer in the franchise, has on occasion had, as a lead-in, a rerun of itself.
NBC executives hold that the franchise’s ubiquity has been to its benefit, and, furthermore, that Wolf and his staff have been handsomely compensated. Unlike most television producers today, Wolf shares in the profits from his shows, because he struck his original deal with Universal back in the late 1980s, when conditions were far more advantageous for “the talent.”
Wolf is a large man with a dark sense of humor. At one point in the franchise’s two-decade lifespan, he acquired a habit of marking scripts he didn’t like with a rubber vomit stamp. A former ad man, he has instructed his writers to keep the series comfortably formulaic—“like Campbell’s soup,” in his words—with reliable quality and only slight variations in flavor.
The producer has long been a thorn in NBC’s side, fighting for every penny he believes he’s owed. His contract requires that all disputes at first be brought before an arbitrator, and Wolf has done this at least twice in recent years. The result has been unremitting tension with the network, which once tried to subpoena Wolf’s ex-wife. But it’s hard to feel bad for anyone involved here: Wolf has made around $750 million for his work on the Law & Order franchise, and NBC Universal—network and cable channels together—have brought in several billion dollars in advertising revenue and license fees.
Wolf has argued in the past that a provision in his contract entitles him to a multimillion-dollar kill-fee if any of his shows is taken off the air—a factor likely that might come into play now that the network has officially axed his baby. The cancellation is a tough blow to the mega-producer’s pride, short-circuiting the show’s marathon run just before it hits that record. But the two sides are still in business together, still busy making each other boatloads of money.
Hence the upbeat tone in a statement Friday from NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Gaspin. "The full measure of the collective contributions made by Dick Wolf and his Law & Order franchise over the last two decades to the success of NBC and Universal Media Studios cannot be overstated,” he said. “The legacy of his original Law & Order series will continue to make an impact like no other series before."
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.