NBC will keep flagship show

“Law & Order: Criminal Intent” is bouncing to USA Network next season, while creator Dick Wolf has sealed a new deal to keep the “Law & Order” mothership on NBC.

As part of the renewal of both shows, NBC Universal also has extended its long-running, extremely profitable pact with Wolf and his Wolf Films shingle for another four years until 2012.

New pact ends weeks of speculation over the fate of both shows, which were up for renewal at the end of this season. (NBC already has “Law & Order: SVU” locked up.)

Under terms of the deal, “L&O: CI” originals will first bow on USA, with second runs then repurposed on NBC.

The new arrangement — which gives a 22-episode order to both shows — keeps everything in the NBC U family, and silences talk that TNT was in the running for first-run “Law & Order” segs.

“My stated objective when this whole thing started was to find a way to bring all three shows back,” Wolf said. “Now all three are back with full season orders. Everyone stays employed.”

The network pointed out that “Criminal Intent,” which enters its seventh season this fall, previously aired originals on NBC with second runs on USA. This just reverses that arrangement.

“Putting ‘Criminal Intent’ originals on USA was the centerpiece of this whole thing,” said NBC Universal prexy-CEO Jeff Zucker. “The fact that originals will air on USA serves to make USA an even stronger and more dominant channel. It propels USA into a new stratosphere above where they already were, and into the big leagues with ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. It starts to make USA the fifth major network.”

Zucker hinted that the company also will likely start pushing advertisers to pay broadcast-level cost-per-thousand (CPM) rates on USA shows, starting with “Criminal Intent.”

Wolf and Zucker declined to specifically discuss license fee arrangements. It’s rare for a basic cable net to order a full 22-episode order of a drama; it’s even rarer for a network drama to make the jump to cable without a significant license fee reduction.

But the second run of “Criminal Intent” likely will help USA amortize the cost.

As for “Law & Order,” the net and Wolf also negotiated a lower license fee to bring the show back for an 18th year. Wolf is already known for running a tight economic ship — with “L&O’s” budget lower than shows that have been on a fraction of the time it has. The exec producer said he’ll simply pull the show’s financial belt even tighter.

“We’re operating what was an extremely efficient operation,” Wolf said. “Now it’s being ratcheted up to extremely efficient operation. No one could run the 17th season of a show for what we’ve been making them. We’re just now going from three sodas to water now.”

As for how and when “Criminal Intent” will be scheduled on USA and where its second runs might land on NBC, Zucker said it was too soon to tell.

“The actual window is something that we’ll work out, given that they’re both in the same family,” Zucker said.

Also, Zucker confirmed that NBC U did hold exploratory talks with TNT about moving “Law & Order” to the Turner cabler, which already runs the off-net eps of the show. But those talks didn’t progress far.

Deal assures Wolf that “Law & Order” will continue its streak as the second-longest running primetime drama in history. The show’s now in the hunt to beat out “Gunsmoke,” which at 20 years (1955-1975) currently carries the longevity crown.

As for the deal extension with Wolf, the marriage vow renewal comes with an extensive international component, as NBC U and Wolf look to further exploit the “Law & Order” brand around the globe. Already producing versions of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” in Russia and France, Wolf expects to announce two new territories soon.

Season to date, the “Law & Order” mothership has averaged a 2.7 rating and 8 share among adults 18-49, averaging 9 million viewers overall. “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” has averaged a 2.8 rating/7 share with adults 18-49, and 8.9 million viewers overall.

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