As the premiere date for a new ''Law & Order'' spin-off approaches, EW peeks behind the scenes to see how all the shows in the franchise plan to stay fresh

By Allison Hope Weiner
February 25, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni Photographed by Mattias Clamer

In its sixth season, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is the hottest cop drama on television. Thanks to Christopher Meloni’s brooding intensity (and his workout regimen) and his costar Mariska Hargitay’s equally alluring tough-chick charm (and her workout regimen), this show about unspeakable sex crimes and the cops who solve them has become a surprise sensation, scoring some of its best ratings ever (a rarity for a show this age), nabbing a Golden Globe win in January for Hargitay (a rarity for any Law & Order series), and outperforming its parent (a rarity for any TV show).

”People hear ching-ching and they come into the room,” jokes Dick Wolf, the 58-year-old former Madison Avenue adman behind all the Law & Order shows. ”It’s Pavlovian.”

And omnipresent. Wolf’s stable of shows — Law & Order (age: 15), SVU, and Criminal Intent (age: 4) — air up to six times a week on NBC and another 40 times on cable. As the Peacock network likes to boast, more than 100 million people will see an L&O episode during any given month. But in September, Wolf’s aging empire, aside from SVU, began to look fallible. The original L&O, under attack from CBS’ CSI: NY, lost its time slot for the first time in eight years. Criminal Intent was (and still is) being spanked by a bunch of randy Housewives, who have sent the series to its lowest ratings since its first season. And to make matters worse, CI was making headlines for reasons unrelated to its ratings: Tabloids blasted star Vincent D’Onofrio for fainting spells on the set. Then, sadly, in December, Jerry Orbach, one of the most beloved players in Wolf’s team, passed away, just as he was helping to launch Wolf’s fourth L&O baby, Trial by Jury.

So with Jury debuting on NBC March 3 at 10 p.m. (before moving to Fridays), EW decided it was time to ask some Lennie Briscoe-type questions of a franchise that’s changed how networks program television — and how viewers watch it. How many shows about cops and lawyers can Wolf juggle? At what point does Wolf spread his franchise too thin? And when do his shows start cannibalizing each other’s audiences and plotlines?