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An overhaul made to ‘Order’

Wolf preps major changes as NBC woes drag down franchise

“Law & Order” supremo Dick Wolf can’t wait for the Peacock to get back in fighting form. So he’s readying his own plan to pump up the brand.

“There are going to be casting changes and additions on all three shows,” Wolf tells Variety. In addition, he is pushing the network to make scheduling shifts to boost the “L&O” trio, which he says remains NBC’s most potent — and profitable — primetime player.

The longrunning franchise is in danger of overexposure. Aside from its frequent cable reruns, NBC has done the show no favors by airing repeats in scheduling holes throughout the week — sometimes with little warning. Last spring, in one week NBC aired 10 hours of the various “Law & Order” shows — almost half of its primetime lineup.

In addition, the series are feeling a squeeze due to the glut of procedural dramas on TV. But perhaps the biggest factor spurring Wolf’s radical moves is the pitiful performance of the Peacock’s primetime sked, which is dragging down even its semi-hits; there’s only so much he can do when the shows around him are crumbling.

“Of course it irks me,” Wolf says of his shows’ ratings declines. “This is like trying to sing a cappella in the Forum while Rome’s burning.”

The original “Law & Order” — the Wednesday night staple Wolf calls the “mothership” — has seen ratings plummet 40% in two years, thanks to poor lead-ins and tough competition from “CSI: NY.”

Spinoff “SVU” ranks as the most popular of the three “L&O” franchises, but it’s fighting an uphill battle.

Last week, NBC laffer “Teachers” delivered a weak 5 share lead-in. “SVU” nearly tripled that score to dominate the 10 p.m. hour.

The “L&O” skein with the toughest task, however, has to be Sunday night’s “Criminal Intent.” In addition to taking on “Desperate Housewives” and young-male magnet “Family Guy,” since January, the show has had to battle HBO’s “The Sopranos.”

The results have been predictably grim. “CI” is the lowest-rated of the “L&O” bunch, with ratings down 29% over two years. To shore up “CI,” Wolf is pushing NBC to take the show off the net’s fall sked.

“I hope they put us on in January,” after NBC’s new Sunday night football franchise wraps, he says. “My fondest hope is ‘SVU’ and ‘Law & Order’ are back on Tuesday and Wednesday at 10, ‘CI’ is on in January at 9 on Sunday.”

Wolf thinks “CI” would benefit from airing a full season of episodes without repeats, particularly since “Desperate Housewives” tends to air a fair number of reruns during the winter and spring months.

NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly won’t commit to anything before NBC’s May 15 fall schedule announcement, but he seems poised to grant Wolf his “CI” wish.

“We’ve talked openly about that,” he says. He won’t make any similar promises about keeping “SVU” or the original “L&O” in their current slots.

Reilly vows he’ll be in constant contact with Wolf in the days leading up to May 15. It’s a big change from a year ago, when Wolf seemed caught off-guard by the last-minute call to kill “L&O’s” third spinoff, “Trial by Jury.”

Open line of communication could placate Wolf, who hated NBC’s decision to shift the mothership to 9 p.m. Wednesdays in order to launch the ill-fated caper drama “Heist.”

The shows aren’t in danger of going anywhere: Last month, all three were renewed for next season. “These shows make a lot of money still,” Wolf says. “In a land where there isn’t much profitable stuff on the schedule, these are literally gold mines. It’s a very loyal audience. There are no shows on television that have more upscale and better educated audiences than the ‘L&O’s.”

The more difficult challenge facing Wolf is refreshing the brand he’s worked so carefully to create. With all three shows past the 100-episode mark, simply turning out well-crafted crime stories may no longer be enough.

The “L&O” brand finds itself in a similar situation to the dilemmas faced over the years by other brand giants such as Coke or McDonald’s. Tough competition and fickle tastes have frequently forced companies to tweak their brand by introducing twists.

Wolf isn’t planning any radical writer or producer shakeups on the “L&O” shows. Instead, he believes adding fresh faces is the equivalent of introducing new menu items.

“New casting is new product,” he says. “You hope that something really catches on.”

Wolf is loath to couch “Law & Order’s” ratings declines as part of a larger referendum on procedural dramas. Networks like ABC and Fox are still hungry to develop procedurals as a complement to their more serialized skeins, which don’t repeat as well and generally can’t be sustained as long.

Still, with a glut of procedurals on the market — and pundits still wondering when the bottom will fall out of the crime-drama frenzy — Wolf does acknowledge a squeeze on the genre.

“We’re on against procedurals in every timeslot except for Sunday,” he says. “Talk about procedurals: CBS has 11 of them. You can’t get away from them. Has that affected (the ‘L&O’ franchise)? I guess.”

Reilly says he has confidence in Wolf’s ability to keep the “L&O” brand strong as NBC tries to mount a comeback. He also takes the blame for the show’s ratings woes.

“The struggles of ‘CI’ and the mothership have really been tied to our primetime challenges,” he says. “Any long-term partnership has conflicts and ups and downs.”

But Reilly says there’s no overestimating the value of the “Law & Order” franchise to NBC Universal.

While overall numbers are down, skein still is a mighty performer with the affluent auds favored by advertisers. Franchise also outperforms its national average in big cities where NBC owns stations.

“Without a doubt, this is our biggest television asset,” he says.

It’s also one of the most cost-effective. Veteran skeins (think “ER”) are often loss-leaders for networks, as costs spiral out of control. But Wolf prides himself on keeping the three shows’ budgets in check — even though they’re filmed in New York, a notoriously expensive city for film and TV production.

He keeps a tight rein on spending to ensure his skeins net tens of millions in primetime profit. (That doesn’t even take into account the millions more in syndie coin the show generates each year for Peacock parent NBC Universal.)

Wolf points to an example of how he does business.

“When you go to craft services on ‘Law & Order,’ you’ll find 48-ounce jumbo plastic jugs of soda,” he says. “Watch most people on film sets, they take a 12-ounce can of Coke, take two sips and throw it away. That’s emblematic of how everything is approached.”

“When you’ve done 660 episodes, people better do it efficiently,” Wolf concludes. “This is not a game.”

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