|There might be a network standing between "Law & Order" and a record-breaking 21st season, and it's not NBC.|
The veteran crime drama's cable home, TNT, might be holding the key to a renewal by NBC that would make "L&O" the longest-running drama series, outpacing "Gunsmoke's" 20-season stint.
Dick Wolf's flagship series has been a signature off-network show on TNT, which launched its "We Know Drama" brand partly on the strength of reruns of the venerable police franchise.
But under its syndication deal with the producers of "L&O," Wolf Films and UMS, TNT supposedly is not obligated to pick up additional seasons beyond the current No. 20.
Also, as part of the agreement, NBC reportedly can't take the show anywhere else.
NBC brass are on board with the pickup.
"I'm a 'Law & Order' junkie," primetime entertainment president Angela Bromstad said in January. "I wouldn't want to be responsible for not having 'Law & Order' break the record."
However, with ratings for "L&O" well below the show's highs of several years ago and its cost considerable even after budget trims, a renewal is a difficult economic proposition for NBC.
Being able to offset some of the cost with TNT's license fee is considered a key part of the Peacock's decision whether to go for Season 21. That gives TNT a great amount of leverage, and the network has been taking its time committing.
TNT has reason to be skittish. The network recently took a $104 million write-off on losses stemming from its off-network run of another crime procedural, "Without a Trace," which fizzled after early success on CBS.
Still, even at its current ratings levels, "L&O" has been such an integral part of the fabric at TNT, it would be hard for the cable network to deny the show a shot at history.
All parties involved declined comment.