'Law & Order' mostly intact

Published May 14, 2007

NEW YORK -- NBC Universal and producer Dick Wolf struck a last-minute deal Sunday to keep Law & Order and its two spinoffs on the air, although Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes will first be seen on the USA cable network.

The deal ensures an 18th season of Law & Order on NBC. That's second only to Gunsmoke, which aired from 1955 to 1975 and was the longest-running network drama series on TV.

NBC announces its fall television schedule today, opening a week where all the broadcasters outline next season's plans to advertisers in New York. NBC had essentially concluded it had room for only two of Wolf's series on next year's schedule. Law & Order: SVU has the highest ratings of the three, so that was safe.

After some brief conversations about shifting Law & Order to Time Warner Inc.'s TNT, the decision was made to keep Criminal Intent for USA, said Jeff Zucker, chairman of NBC Universal. NBC and USA are corporate cousins within NBC Universal, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent reruns make up some of its most popular programming.

Now USA will be able to premiere a full season's worth of 22 episodes of what had been an established network series, a first for the business. The series is entering its seventh season. It's not clear when Criminal Intent episodes will air on NBC; they may be used to fill a hole when a new fall drama fails.

Law & Order sank sharply in the ratings this year, although that was expected with a move to Fridays, one of the least-watched nights on television.

While it will be back for an 18th season, NBC executives declined Sunday to say whether it will start in the fall or midseason.