That is one of the most intriguing questions heading into the upfronts this year. Of Dick Wolf‘s five Law & Order series, only one — first spinoff Law & Order: SVU — is still on the air. But its renewal is being complicated by financial issues. Now in its 15th season, Law & Order: SVU is the longest-running drama series currently on TV. As a high-end drama at that age, it is inherently expensive, leading to periodic budget reviews. Last year, SVU, along with Wolf’s then-freshman Chicago Fire, received early pickups. This year, Chicago Fire and freshman spinoff Chicago P.D. were among the shows to get early renewals by NBC last month, but SVU wasn’t. (All three are produced by NBC sibling Universal TV, where Wolf is based.) I hear the holdup has to do with a pay cut Wolf had been asked to take in order for SVU to come back, something he has been unwilling to do.
Both sides have a point. Wolf’s camp could argue that SVU is having one of its strongest seasons in years, with star Mariska Hargitay getting notices for her nuanced performance. Averaging a 2.5 adults 18-49 rating (most current), SVU ranks as the No. 4 NBC scripted drama this season behind The Blacklist (4.3), Chicago Fire (2.9) and Grimm (2.6). Last night, the show matched its best 18-49 Live+Same Day rating (2.1) since the season premiere, up 21% from last week. SVU also is up double digits vs. last season, by 21% in 18-49 and by 17% in total viewers, and has an off-network deal with USA. Plus, I hear Wolf had taken a pay cut on the show once and is reluctant to do it again.
On the other hand, as solid as they are, SVU‘s numbers still are nowhere near the show’s heyday, prompting the network’s request for cost reduction. Ironically, NBC is in position to hold firm in part because of Wolf’s success with the Chicago Fire franchise. With young series like The Blacklist, Grimm, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. (2.4 in 18-49) doing as well or better than SVU, the network is far less dependent on the veteran than it was just a couple of years ago.
There is still a month before NBC needs to presents its 2014-2015 lineup to advertisers, so the two sides could reach an agreement. They did it successfully two years ago when things went to the wire before an SVU renewal came with a series pickup for Chicago Fire and a new rich overall deal for Wolf at Universal TV, which has another year on it. But things went sour four years ago when, after a tentative agreement for a partial 21st season of flagship Law & Order, negotiations broke off at the last minute when Wolf was asked to pitch in financially and declined, leading to the veteran series’ shock cancellation four days before NBC’s upfront presentation.
No matter which way things go with SVU this year, Wolf will be OK. He has been able to reinvent himself with a new drama franchise at NBC in Chicago Fire/P.D., and he also has been able to crack the reality space with TNT hit Cold Justice. Further complicating things, if a renewal is reached, the studio has to move on to secure Hargitay, whose deal is up. The uncertainty seems to have people on the show evaluating their options — I hear showrunner Warren Leight has been eyed for a pilot.