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‘Law’ losing rerun steam

Franchise overkill tiring TNT, Peacock auds

Nothing lasts forever — not even “Law & Order.”

TNT has run the proverbial sprockets out of the more than 300 episodes of “Law & Order” for the past few years, riding reruns of the most durable one-hour series in the history of television to a first-place finish in total viewers among all cable networks for three years straight (2003 through 2005).

But harbingers of decline are starting to crop up in 2006, as TNT continues to rely heavily on “L&O,” scheduling it 14 times a week between 7 and 11 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“We’re concerned about the ratings,” said Steve Koonin, exec VP and chief operating officer at TNT and TBS.

The 7 p.m. strip of “Law & Order” is down 29% in adults 18-49 year-to-date, but Koonin said the show is facing reruns of “CSI” every weekday on Spike TV and reruns of the first “Law & Order” sequel, “SVU,” on USA.

Similarly, at 8 p.m., “L&O” is off by 26% in adults 18-49 year to date. Spike TV plays a second daily rerun of “CSI” at 8, directly up against the four “Law & Order” plays (every weeknight except Thursday, when TNT runs NBA basketball). Also at 8, USA weighs in with four runs of the second “L&O” sequel, “Criminal Intent.”

Decline on cable coincides with continued ratings decline for the “L&O” mothership on NBC. Season-to-date in adults 18-49, Peacock’s broadcasts of the Wednesday night show are down 14% from last year — and 33% vs. 2004.

NBC’s broadcasts of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: CI” are also down vs. last season, though “SVU” remains a potent player on Tuesdays, regularly winning its 10 p.m. timeslot.

Ratings erosion of “L&O” on NBC can be attributed to the same factors hurting the show on TNT: competition and overexposure.

During 2004 and much of 2005, Peacock went on an “L&O” bender, sometimes airing different versions of the brand up to a dozen hours a week. It’s since cut back, but the damage may have been done.

At the same time, two of the three “L&O” brands now face blockbuster competish. The Wednesday original has been challenged by “CSI: NY,” while Sunday’s “CI” has to battle “Desperate Housewives” and “The Sopranos” (with low-rated “The West Wing” as a lead-in).

As for TNT, cabler can still harvest a big audience for an individual “L&O” episode, like the 3.56 million viewers who checked out the 9 p.m. edition on Feb. 27, or the 3.54 million who watched the Feb. 28 hour.

But those were the only two “L&O” episodes that cracked the top 50 rated programs for the week ended March 4. During many weeks in 2004 and 2005, a half-dozen “L&O” hours on TNT would show up in the top 50.

Koonin said help is on the way, because TNT will be able to start playing multiple runs of the CBS hit “Without a Trace” in September. And in fall 2007 another CBS hit, “Cold Case,” will make its way to TNT for multiple runs on a four-year-plus license term.

TNT also has a large inventory of theatrical movies that could take over one or more nights of the schedule before September. And an elaborate, original eight-hour miniseries, “Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King,” will run multiple times during the summer.

(Rick Kissell in Hollywood contributed to this report.)