Law & Over? TV's Long-Running Crime Procedurals Losing Traction

Audiences Seem to Be Turning to Newer, Often More Complex Shows

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Mariska Hargitay and the departing Christopher Meloni on 'Law & Order: SVU'
Mariska Hargitay and the departing Christopher Meloni on 'Law & Order: SVU' Credit: NBC

TV shows are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the TV networks, which air them as long as they keep up their ratings , and the producers, who churn out new episodes for as long as they can. Sometimes, the two continue to put the shows on the screen even as a fickle public starts to lose interest. This is one of those stories.

In 1990, NBC Universal's "Law & Order" started a veritable TV empire of what might now be called "basic procedurals," or dramas that focus more intently on solving crimes and little on the actual characters who do the detective work. In the wake of the show's success, NBC launched "Law & Order: SVU" in 1999, "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" in 2002, "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" in 2005 and "Law & Order: Los Angeles" in 2010. In 2000, CBS launched its own salvo in the fight: "CSI," followed by "CSI: Miami" in 2002 and "CSI: New York" in 2004.

"SVU" and the three "CSI" dramas will be on the prime-time grid come autumn, but there's a sense these days that the series are moving toward their final cases.

Ratings for all the shows on air have declined noticeably. In the 2005-2006 TV season, for example, "Law & Order: SVU" attracted an average of 13.7 million viewers on Tuesdays at 10 p.m., according to Nielsen. This season through May 22 , the Wednesday 10 p.m. showing of "SVU" averaged 7.6 million viewers.

In the 2006-2007 season, "CSI" attracted an average of 19.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen. In the 2010-2011 season through May 22 , it averaged about 12 million.

And "SVU" fans were surprised to learn last week that veteran actor Christopher Meloni is leaving the series. NBC has also suggested it will bring a new female actress -- one possibility NBC has acknowledged is the decidedly less dour Jennifer Love Hewitt -- later in the season to give the show's other lead, Mariska Hargitay, an opportunity to appear in fewer episodes.

At CBS, each of the "CSI" series continues to bring in a healthy audience, but the network has over the past two years moved the programs from their original time slots -- often a sign of diminishing performance -- to bolster lineups on different nights.

CBS executives believe the "CSI" series have improved the time slots to which they have moved. "These are healthy franchises I think any other network would be happy to have," Kelly Kahl, senior exec VP-CBS Primetime, said at a recent press conference.

NBC doesn't sound as ebullient. "I don't know if the public is done with 'Law & Order' yet, but these things age and you do multiple versions of them and at some point, you have to bring in the younger concepts," Robert Greenblatt, chairman-NBC Entertainment, said during a recent conference call with reporters. A spokeswoman for Dick Wolf, producer of the "Law & Order" series, said he declined to comment.

At the heart of the matter is TV audiences' desire to move to something a little new and different. For years, they were happy to have reliable police dramas that focused on the solution of a crime and the disposal of the criminals, and tied up all plot strands by the end of an hour. They could skip an episode without having to worry about missing anything important.

Now viewers appear to crave something slightly more complex. "They are interested in learning more about our characters," Nina Tassler, president-CBS Entertainment, said in recent remarks. "Our audience has said to us, 'You can give us a little bit more character. You can push the envelope a little bit more.'" Over the past two seasons, CBS has introduced and built up the complex legal drama "The Good Wife." Next the network will unveil "Person of Interest," a spy drama from producer J.J. Abrams, producer of enigmatic TV programs such as "Lost" and "Fringe."

Changing the cast is one way to try to refresh interest in a long-running show, but that has risks of its own. "Much of what keeps people engaged with a series is the cast and the chemistry," said Don Seaman, VP-director, communications analysis at Havas's MPG. "As the premise of the show remained fairly unchanged, players have frequently changed. Over the course of the extended life of such a franchise, the emotional connections to what brought you into the series in the first place are likely to be gone."

For what it's worth, NBC doesn't want to get out of the "Law & Order" business. "It's a franchise I'd love to keep going," said Mr. Greenblatt. It's just not clear that fans, who can easily access older episodes of "L&O" and "CSI" in syndication, will continue to feel the same.

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