When “Law & Order” was canceled 11 years ago, the NBC tentpole‘s final season was averaging 8.2 million viewers. Today, those figures would give Dick Wolf’s procedural the highest same-day viewership of any scripted drama on the network. But that’s not the only reason it’s coming back. Sure, NBC is banking on Season 21 of the flagship “Law & Order” franchise to provide a broadcast ratings bump, but — like seemingly every decision in entertainment these days — streaming may be the priority.
“Law & Order,” which premiered on NBC in 1990 and ran for 20 seasons before being cancelled in 2010, is returning to NBC with the classic format that explores two separate, yet equally important groups: “The police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” Wolf Entertainment, which produces the show, announced that Season 21 was a go on Tuesday.
The decision could benefit NBCUniversal on multiple fronts. The “Law & Order” revival should earn solid ratings on broadcast, given the franchise’s continued success and NBC’s proven track record with Wolf’s programming fleet. Traditional procedural dramas with name recognition have become one of network TV’s few reliable mainstays, even as ratings continue to drop across the board. Wolf’s “Chicago” shows ranked first, second, and third in network viewership among scripted series for the 2020-2021 season, while “Law & Order: Organized Crime” and “Law & Order: SVU” came in fifth and sixth, respectively. (“This Is Us” is the only show not produced by Wolf in NBC’s top six programs, though it’s No. 1 in the 18-49 demo.)
But a 21st season of “Law & Order” also helps the conglomerate’s streaming service. When NBC cancelled “Law & Order,” Peacock was just a network nickname, and streaming wasn’t a factor. Now, it’s the future, and library content is a key component to keeping subscribers satisfied. The massive “Law and Order” franchise has endured in popularity since the original series’ cancellation. Two spin-off series, “Special Victims Unit” and “Organized Crime,” are still active, and a third, “Hate Crimes,” was ordered last year and is expected to premiere on Peacock in the future. Eight seasons of “Law & Order” are available on Peacock’s paid premium plans, as well as all seasons of spin-offs “Special Victims Unit,” “Criminal Intent,” and “Organized Crime.”
Wolf has remained a key figure in NBCUniversal’s creative team in the years since “Law & Order” was cancelled. He signed a five-year, nine-figure deal with the NBCUniversal-owned Universal Television in 2020, which included a variety of series commitments for new shows on different platforms. Also in 2020, NBCUniversal made a major investment in a six-show deal to bring Wolf’s shows to Peacock, expecting the TV producer’s franchises to serve as a bankable brand for the streaming service. That faith was fueled not only by viewership for “SVU” and “Organized Crime,” but the emergence of Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise, which now spans three shows: “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med,” and “Chicago P.D.” As new episodes of all these series premiere on broadcast, they add to the hours of available viewing content on streaming — success breeds more success, or so the thinking goes.
Synergy is again the hot term around Hollywood, especially when it comes to broadcast networks with ties to streaming services. CBS has aired episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” and “The Good Fight” (both spinoffs), in an effort to boost exposure for CBS All Access and Paramount+. Posters and ads for ABC shows like “The Conners” and “The Wonder Years” (also spinoffs) come with tags recommending you stream them on Hulu. And in addition to “Law & Order,” NBC recently ordered a sequel series to “Night Court,” which originally ran from 1984-1992, after reviving “Will & Grace” for three seasons from 2017-2020. (Hey, more spinoffs!)
It may not be science and magic, but an increasingly prominent part of broadcast success seems to be making what’s old new again. Expect more to come.