By Brian Steinberg
The idea of canceling "Law & Order" on NBC after 20 seasons — and hundreds of reruns in syndication and on cable — sounds like anathema. Why would NBC, trying to right itself after several seasons of relatively lackluster programming, kill the show that has helped carry it through good times and bad?
The answer? Despite the program’s near-ubiquity across the set-top box, its original episodes no longer commanded great respect from advertisers.
Marketers agreed to pay a relatively paltry $59,973 for a 30-second ad in "Law & Order" this season, according to Advertising Age’s annual survey of prime-time ad prices, compared with an average of $135,474 for a 30-second ad in the same show on Wednesday nights in the 2008-2009 TV season. Sibling drama "Law & Order: SVU" has seen its pricing drop less significantly. For this season, advertisers were forking over an average of $101,632 for a 30-second ad, compared with an average of $146,679 in the 2008-2009 season.
At those rates, the original "Law & Order" takes in fewer ad dollars per 30-second ad than even "Trauma," NBC’s failed freshman medical drama. That program, which couldn’t muster even one-twentieth of "L&O’s" staying power, this season commanded an average of $75,928 for a 30-second spot, according to the Ad Age survey.
"Law & Order" can’t take all the blame. Yes, it’s old and critics could make the argument that the drama was more compelling when actors such as Chris Noth, Benjamin Bratt, Jesse L. Martin and Jerry Orbach had starting roles. But Sam Waterston still plays flinty attorney Jack McCoy, as he has for 17 seasons. But a good chunk of NBC’s schedule took a hit this season after the network decided to run five nights of "The Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday.
NBC may also have considered whether the show could continue to command good rates in syndication and on cable. Time Warner’s TNT runs multiple seasons of "Law & Order" during much of its daytime schedule, for example.
NBC today said it had decided to cancel the show after 20 seasons, ending producer Dick Wolf’s long-running desire to keep the show on the air so it could surpass "Gunsmoke," which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1975, the longest-running drama in TV history.
In 2006, Mr. Wolf told The Wall Street Journal that the "Law & Order" dramas "should last as long as the ratings stay at the level they have been." He added: "At a certain point, the numbers will not support the expense of making the shows, and at that point, they will be canceled."
NBC is slated to unveil its 2010-2011 programming lineup Sunday during a press conference with reporters and Monday at a meeting with advertisers in New York. While Mr. Wolf may have sentimental reasons for keeping "Law & Order" on the air, he has little to worry about from a financial point of view. One of the programs being picked up for prime time next season is "Law & Order: Los Angeles." #