This fall, the biggest mystery on NBC's Law & Order won't unfold on a witness stand or in a DA's office. It'll be why Trial by Jury the fourth installment of what seemed to be network TV's most unstoppable franchise was killed after less than one full season.
NBC's decision to ax the Bebe Neuwirth series was a twist worthy of the show's best episodes. After all, Dick Wolf, the creator of Law & Order, is powerful enough to have helped spur NBC's takeover of Universal Studios. NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, meanwhile, has been on the job for only a year, just as the network started a post-Friends decline from first to fourth in viewers. Why would NBC's fledgling chief risk alienating its strongest producer especially by canceling a show with apparent growth potential? ''You have a historical mother lode of information on how these [Law & Order] shows go up in their second year,'' contends Wolf, who says he's ''never been this shocked by a corporate decision'' in 30 years. Counters Reilly: ''I'm well aware of the path that Dick's shows travel. Unfortunately, we had to go with the three Law & Orders that are performing. The decision was made at the highest ends of the company'' which means it had the okay from Reilly's predecessor-turned-boss, Jeff Zucker.
Wolf's clout aside, Trial by Jury's 11-week run seemed to offer all the elements for renewal. It averaged a respectable 11.2 million viewers each week, on par with its main Friday-night competitor, CBS' Numb3rs. Unlike most freshman shows, Trial by Jury attracted prominent guest stars like Candice Bergen, Peter Coyote, and Lorraine Bracco, due to strong writing and a cast that included such respected veterans as Neuwirth. And given its three sister shows, the cross-promotional opportunities were huge.
When a powerful producer's show is canceled by a network while lower-rated shows get a pass, something is amiss. Cha-chung! In the broadcast television system, there are two sides that collaborate or clash: the producer and the network. These are their stories.
RATINGS GREASED THE SKIDS
Should decent ratings have been enough? ''The ratings performance of the show was inconsistent and ultimately disappointing,'' says Reilly. ''Over the last number of runs, the show wasn't winning its time period.'' And given Trial's so-so 18-to-49 demographics, NBC had no time to wait. ''When we ordered this show, we were the No. 1 network. Now we're the No. 4 network,'' explains Reilly. ''We need to seed in some new shows and freshen up our schedule, and that puts more pressure on the fourth installment. If our ratings were as strong as when we ordered this, we'd give it at least another 14 episodes to find itself.''
TOO MUCH LAW CREATES DISORDER
When Reilly inherited Trial by Jury, NBC was riding high and Law & Orders were airing at least six times a week on NBC. That's about to change. ''Now that we have football [on Sundays, beginning in 2006], we only have five nights of entertainment programming,'' he says. (Saturday, in case you hadn't noticed, is now an official dead zone.) ''When we had six nights, we could accommodate four Law & Orders.'' With only five, he adds, it's just too much. If so, why did Reilly use endless L&O reruns to plug holes in NBC's lineup all spring? ''Because we had a lack of viable options,'' he concedes. ''It was a difficult year. We won't be employing that strategy this year.''