CHICAGO (thefutoncritic.com) -- Universal Television, the studio behind NBC's "Law & Order" franchise, has announced it plans to roll out a fourth edition of the drama next fall. The project, which is referred to simply as "Four" by Universal executives, will once again use the now infamous "Law & Order" cops and lawyers formula. The twist to this incarnation is that the series will concentrate more on the New York court system and in a first for the franchise, use a rotating repertory company of actors instead of a principal cast.
The news comes as Universal unveiled its plans over the weekend to bundle its current staple of the original "Law & Order" and spin-offs "Special Victims Unit" and "Criminal Intent" into one deal valued at $550 million per season. The pact will call for Universal to produce 70-72 hours of the franchise each season, with an average license fee of about $8 million per episode. The company hopes to nail down a deal by December even though two years are left on its current contracts with NBC for the original and "Criminal Intent." If reached, the deal would be the largest in television history, topping the previous record of $280 million per season in 1998 for "ER."
At stake for NBC is the threat that if a new pact isn't reached, Universal will take "Special Victims Unit" (whose contract is up at the close of the 2003-04 season) and its proposed spin-off (which is not included as part of the proposed pact) to another network in fall 2004. The company however would have to drop the "Law & Order" prefix from the title of each.
Also at play is the future of Universal Television itself. NBC's parent company, General Electric, is among the bidders to buy Universal Television's parent company, Vivendi Universal. Viacom and Liberty Media are also said to be interested in Vivendi, which includes cable channels, USA Network and the Sci-Fi Channel.
While negotiations are at the early stage, both sides are expected to provide arguments about the prospective value of the "Law & Order" franchise:
-- NBC could argue it has raised the profile of the franchise thanks in part to its publicity and promotion. Furthermore while creator Dick Wolf's shows may succeed on the Peacock, the producers efforts on the other networks ("Dragnet" on ABC, "Feds" on CBS and "New York Undercover" on FOX) have not been anywhere near the powerhouse level "Law & Order" has.
-- On the other hand, Universal will likely argue that its programs provide on thing NBC's other series can't: solid ratings for repeats. Such a quality helped the Peacock shore up several time slots during the sweeps periods, as well as put the network's Saturday lineup back on the map this season. And just as important, the franchise's strong 10:00/9:00c performance helps as a lead-in to the local newscasts on NBC affiliates and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
-- Universal is also expected to rely heavily on a recent report by Morgan Stanley analyst Richard A. Bilotti which says that during the 2001-2002 television season, the original "Law & Order" was the most profitable scripted show on the network. The drama, he states, contributed $160.7 million of gross profit, or 14.6% of NBC's total gross profit from regular series ($681.5 million) that season.
Despite all of this, Universal executives insist things are still in the early stages of discussion and expect an amicable resolution.