Sunday, September 13, 2015

TALES OF LAW AND ORDER


Well I gather today is the 25th anniversary of LAW & ORDER. Here's a post from the original blog where I spin some yarns about the show.
 
TALES OF LAW AND ORDER
IN THE NETWORK TELEVISION SYSTEM THE VIEWER IS REPRESENTED BY TWO SEPARATE BUT EQUALLY FLAWED GROUPS: THE PRODUCERS WHO CREATE THE SHOWS, AND THE NETWORK EXECUTIVES WHO OFTEN SCREW THEM UP. HERE ARE SOME STORIES:                    1989.....towards the end of pilot screenings.....Brandon Tartikoff showed us a pilot that had been passed on at CBS. Brandon explained that the gimmick of this cop/legal drama was that two separate stories were told each week. The first half hour presented a crime (murder) and we would follow the police investigation which would lead to an arrest. The second half of the show would follow the accused through his or her trial and the resulting verdict. The structure allowed the show to be sold into syndication as half hours although it was an hour drama. Whatever. It was a solid gritty pilot and Brandon ordered some episodes so that he could redevelop it.  1990 Pilot screenings. We screen a somewhat brighter, less gritty version of LAW AND ORDER. The series started its unprecedented run on NBC in the fall of 1990. Sad to see the show ending its 20 season run but, to be honest, I haven't really watched it over the past several years and I'm sure there is plenty of blame to go around as to how this all happened...and it's not like L&O is going away, with two spinoffs still on the air and L&O:LA (Ray Davies must be salivating) coming on this fall. I was fortunate to get to know Dick Wolf while I scheduled the show in the 90's. Dick was always complaining to me about L&O’s lead in or lack thereof. I would insist that the show did not need a lead in, that it was appointment television. I even threatened to run a test pattern for an hour in front of the show (which was pretty much a fixture Wednesday at 10) as a stunt to see if it would affect the ratings. I loved this show and could not wait for the new script to land on my desk. The episode that took L&O to a new level for me came towards the end of its first season....SONATA FOR SOLO ORGAN....where the guys find a dead body in Central Park and the vic had a missing kidney. I loved it so much that, I believe when I took over scheduling in 1991, I actually ran the episode for a fourth time over protests from Mr. Wolf. It did just fine and I realized that this was a show that could be repeated over and over again. More on that in a while. The ratings for Law and Order were ok but not great and although we renewed it for a third season I believe that no one at NBC thought this show would have 4, no less 17 years left in it. Then something happened. In November of season three we aired an episode called HELPLESS which featured a secondary character on the show Dr. Olivett played by Carolyn McCormick (pardon my spelling). If my memory serves me well she volunteers to sort of go undercover to entrap a physician who was raping his patients and she is raped. The gang prevails in convicting the doctor. The ratings for the episode popped and I noticed that the ratings increase was driven by women. Law and Order's four leads were all men. I went to Warren Littlefield with the data. Maybe we need to bring some women front and center on the show. To Warren's credit he called Dick and in essence told him that he was canceling the show unless Dick changed the cast and added two female characters. Dick complied, the ratings started growing and the rest is history. Although Dick was always complaining about the lead in I do think that Law and Order also benefitted from often having comedy lead ins in front of it which gave us the opportunity to promote the episodes to a younger audience. On two occasions I pitched stories to Dick which actually became episodes. In season four Rene' Balcer wrote an episode called DOUBLES. Here was the pitch: What if Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were in cahoots. It was transformed from figure skating to tennis but it was "ripped from today's headlines". A few years later I saw Rene' at an NBC function where he told me he thought it was the worst episode of Law and Order ever....oh well. Law and Order was one of the first shows in the modern TV era to consistently deliver more than 22 episodes. After a few years doing 23 episodes we made a new deal at the start of season 8 were we ordered 24 episodes and were given the right to repeat each episode three times for a total of 72 runs in a season....and I used virtually every one of them. My second chance to pitch Dick an idea came before Season 7. Blame John Wells for this one. ER was one of the biggest shows on television and each year I would plead with John to give us more than 22 episodes. John would not budge and I could not figure out how we were going to get from the end of February to May with virtually no originals. The OJ verdict had come down in October 1995. The nation was riveted and it still resonated in our culture when I called Dick and pitched him an idea. I told him that we needed to give ER a break after the February 1997 sweeps period and I offered him the coveted “Must See TV” Thursday night slot; but there was a catch............he needed to deliver a three part "event" which would be the ultimate ripped from the headlines L&O ever. The gang takes on the "DreamTeam" in a murder story with elements of the OJ trial. Dick immediately bought in......one problem….Don Ohlmeyer had been a friend of OJ and Warren and I were concerned about how Don might react to something like this. So we went up to see him. Don's back was hurting and he was in the prone position puffing on a Marlboro. I cautiously pitched him the idea....he was quiet and kept puffing...."Take the rest of the day off, I love it". Part One: "D GIRL" aired Thursday at 10 in March LAW AND ORDER won an Emmy that season, something that doesn't happen that often for a show that far along in its journey. LOST, 24 and now LAW AND ORDER....wow...I hope a few shows that we're all presenting this week can pick up the mantle...I really do.


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