NBC plans primetime revamp to attract younger auds

In the end, NBC’s decision on “Law and Order” came down to a question of the message the Peacock aims to send as it unveils a radical overhaul of its primetime sked.

That message boils down to out with the old, in with a new, younger-skewing generation of signature NBC skeins (or so execs hope).

Renewing an underperforming veteran that was greenlit in the Brandon Tartikoff era would have clashed with the “it’s a new day for NBC” pitch that execs will make to advertisers today during its presentation at the New York Hilton.

And of course, the ching-ching franchise lives on in the Peacock orbit with “Law and Order: SVU,” USA’s “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and the nascent “Law and Order: Los Angeles,” which earned a series pickup for the fall even without a completed pilot.

Nonetheless, as word of the mothership’s cancellation spread on Friday morning, many industry insiders expressed shock that such a landmark skein for the biz, let alone for NBC, would come to such an unceremonious end. Between the spinoffs, syndication and international format licensing, the show has grossed an estimated $2 billion (and counting) for NBC U.

Because NBC and creator-exec producer Dick Wolf had been far along in talks for a renewal — before a big scuffle over budget cuts broke out — the show’s 20th season finale (to air May 24) was not fashioned as a series closer.

Wolf was said to be upset over what he viewed as NBC reneging on an earlier handshake agreement that the show would be given at least a truncated order for a 21st season, allowing it to beat “Gunsmoke’s” record for primetime drama longevity, Wolf’s oft-stated goal.

Once tempers cool, Wolf and NBC brass are expected to put their heads together on a plan to bring some closure to the stories of key characters through a telepic or possibly as part of the launch of “Law and Order: Los Angeles.”

Wolf has kept mum since the news became official beyond a terse statement issued Friday afternoon: “Never complain. Never explain.”

Sam Waterston, the second longest-serving thesp on the show known for its frequent cast changes, was a little more sanguine in a lengthy statement issued Friday evening.

“I have no complaints — none — but I’m as surprised as anyone,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine there would not be a 21st season on NBC, either. So, if we end up tied for first with “Gunsmoke” for longest-running primetime drama ever, that’ll do. No complaints. … A job like the one I’ve had doesn’t happen in my line of work. I’ve had a great time.”

NBC brass, not surprisingly, sought to accentuate the positive about the show’s historic, 456-episode run in announcing its fade-out. George Bush was in the White House and Tartikoff was in his last months at the helm of NBC when “Law and Order” bowed on Sept. 13, 1990, in the Thursday 10 p.m. slot.

“The full measure of the collective contributions made by Dick Wolf and his ‘Law and Order’ franchise over the last two decades to the success of NBC and Universal Media Studios cannot be overstated,” said NBC U TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin.

The show settled into the Wednesday 10 p.m. berth in the 1992-93 season and remained there until 2006.

The drama that set the tone for many contempo procedural hours was a solid but unspectacular performer for the Peacock in its early years, but it perked up to a top 10-top 20 player by 1997 after the show went into syndication on A&E. Spinoff “Law and Order: SVU” bowed in 1999, followed by “Criminal Intent” in 2001 on NBC (it shifted to USA in 2007).

“SVU” overtook its progenitor in ratings after its first few seasons, but “Law and Order” remained competitive until about four seasons ago when it began bouncing around NBC’s sked. This season, it fell just outside the top 50 primetime skeins with an average of 7.3 million viewers, while it placed 80th in adults 18-49 with an average 1.8 rating.

“Law and Order” earned 11 Emmy noms for drama series from 1992-2002, winning once in 1997.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more