LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Law & Order" may stumble in its quest to replace "Gunsmoke" as the longest running primetime drama in television history.
The NBC crime show, currently languishing in the ratings after being banished to Fridays in its 17th season, is one of several long-running series whose futures are uncertain.
NBC has begun talks with the show's producers for another season, and sources said the network is seeking a reduction in the license fee it pays for each episode. "Law & Order" is produced by NBC corporate sibling NBC Universal TV Studio and the show's creator, Dick Wolf.
NBC recently sought -- and received -- a lower fee for the right to air the modestly rated Friday drama "Las Vegas." The NBC/DreamWorks-produced show will return for a fifth season, but without co-star Nikki Cox, who fell victim to the tighter budget.
NBC's "Scrubs" is definitely coming back for a season, but possibly on ABC, which in turn is weighing the future of utility players "According to Jim" and "George Lopez."
"Law & Order" is one of the best-known brands in television, yielding two spinoffs, and playing strongly in reruns. Wolf has often said he wants to surpass the record of 20 seasons held by "Gunsmoke," but the ratings are not helping.
So far this season, "Law & Order" is averaging 9.3 million viewers, down from 11.6 million a year ago, when it aired in its traditional Wednesday berth, according to Nielsen Media Research. Its spinoffs, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," are averaging 12.9 million and 9.7 million, respectively, both also down markedly from last year. By contrast, top-rated dramas "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy" pull in about 20 million viewers each.
In the meantime, former "Law & Order" showrunner Rene Balcer has returned to the series as a consultant to write several of the season's remaining episodes. He served as an executive producer/showrunner on the series as well as on "Criminal Intent" until last spring.
The broadcast networks make most of their money during their series' early run, usually around the third year. But by the fifth or sixth seasons, they usually have to pay a license fee that equals the series' production costs. A recent Wall Street Journal report quoted sources as saying NBC pays about $3 million for a single episode of "Criminal Intent."
If one factors in ratings premiums in the range of $100,000-$150,000 per episode paid by the networks that kick in after the fourth season as well as partial reimbursements of the losses incurred by the studios in the early years of the shows, it is no surprise that the networks are taking a careful look at their older series.
In the case of so-called "bubble" shows whose ratings are marginal, the networks have been making the case of bringing them back for a license fee less than 100% of the production cost. The studios can usually make up the difference through domestic reruns and international sales.
Both "Law & Order" and "Vegas" are partially produced in-house, which adds other factors to the equation. For instance, after its current fourth season, "Vegas" has 87 episodes produced. Another season will bring it comfortably above the syndication threshold of 100 episodes, which is beneficial to NBC Universal TV Studio.
Both "Jim," produced by ABC's sister studio ABC TV, and "Lopez," which hails from Warner Bros. TV, were not on ABC's fall schedule, an indication that they might be nearing their end. But "Jim" showed spunk last week, and "Lopez" has done well enough against Fox's "American Idol" that both series are considered quite possible to return, though not necessarily at a license fee that covers 100% of the costs.
Things are far more complicated with "Scrubs" because there is another suitor for the ABC TV-produced show, ABC, which needs an established comedy.
After ABC TV locked up the entire cast of the show, including star Zach Braff, for a seventh season and signing a new deal with the hospital where the quirky comedy is being filmed, "Scrubs" is locked to come back.
Although NBC brass have expressed a commitment to the show, the network has moved the series around the schedule numerous times, and last year it exercised its option for a sixth season at the last minute. Many expect things to go down to the wire again this year.