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NBC builds case for 3rd ‘Law’ skein

Prod'n on new series could begin in December

NBC is in advanced negotiations with Dick Wolf and Studios USA to launch a third installment of the incredibly successful “Law & Order” franchise — and soon.

As first reported Tuesday morning on Variety.com, the Peacock is willing to make a 13-episode on-air commitment to land the show. As with previous “Law” spinoff “Special Victims Unit,” it’s expected that Studios USA would ask for a shared cable window with USA Network. That would mean episodes of the new series would air on Studio USA’s sister cable web about a week after bowing on NBC.

What’s most interesting about the potential deal is the timing. If all goes according to plan, production on the new “Law” could start as soon as late December, with all 13 episodes in the can by early summer — before the start of the threatened writers and actors strikes.

Execs close to the negotiations caution that the two sides have yet to come to financial terms on the new “Law,” leaving room for the possibility that a deal won’t get done at all.

Several networks have explored the possibility of stockpiling episodes of existing series or greenlighting pilots early to cushion the blow from a production stoppage. But the “Law” deal, if it goes through, would represent the most dramatic attempt by any web to purchase strike insurance with original scripted programming.

It’s a pretty low-risk strategy for NBC, too. The original “Law” is the longest-running drama currently on the air, and one of the longest-running dramas in the history of the medium. Show has been a ratings warhorse for the network, consistently winning its Wednesday timeslot. And newcomer “SVU” was a solid success in its freshman year last season.

NBC would also save at least $100,000 per episode by agreeing to share the new “Law” with USA Network. It’s expected NBC would allow the new “Law” to air on USA outside of primetime. Studios USA has an agreement with Fox for a new take on “In Search of …” that will air in primetime on both Fox and USA.

While details of the concept behind the third “Law” are being kept under wraps, it’s unlikely the show will be evenly divided between the criminal justice and law enforcement worlds, as the first “Law” is. Wolf has already built a bicoastal infrastructure of writers, producers and directors who could be tapped to turn out the new series, making a rapid production start easy to accomplish.

If the third “Law” becomes a reality and Wolf’s new NBC drama “Deadline” gets picked up for a second season, Wolf would have four series on the Peacock next season. That would make him the Peacock’s most prolific primetime producer, on a par only with “Dateline NBC” exec Neal Shapiro. “Dateline” now airs thrice weekly but would likely air up to five nights per week in the event of a strike.

NBC has picked up the original “Law” through the 2004-05 season; “SVU” has been secured until May 2002.

Reps for Wolf, Studios USA and NBC declined to comment on negotiations. Wolf is repped by UTA.

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