Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni

Law & Order, the crime franchise's mother ship, was canceled by NBC after 20 seasons last May. USA Network has announced that the final eight episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent will air in early 2011. Ratings for freshman series Law & Order: Los Angeles are middling. And finally, the reliable Special Victims Unit is losing longtime show runner Neal Baer in June, at the same time contracts are up for the series' invaluable leads, Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, whose last contract negotiations in the summer of 2009 went down to the wire. Come September, is it possible that for the first time in 21 years there could be no Law & Order show on television?

Baer predicts a ratings bounce for SVU when the show moves from Wednesdays at 9pm back to 10pm come January 5; the sex-crimes show has consistently drawn better numbers in the later slot over the years. The drama currently averages 9.7 million viewers, down from its high of 15.2 million in the 2001-2002 season. "We're still doing compelling and memorable stories," Baer says, "and drawing great guest stars," including Drea de Matteo and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, who will appear in 2011. "SVU can go on for a long time." According to a source close to the L&O franchise, no one on set or from the studio or network believes the show will end with Season 12. 

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That could all be moot if the actors don't renew their contracts. "I think it would be impossible to continue the show if both [Hargitay and Meloni] were not there," says media consultant Bill Carroll, vice president of Katz Television Group. "The longtime viewer has established a personal relationship with both characters." Carroll thinks the show could survive if only one of the leads exits, but "it would depend on how it is dealt with and who comes in."

Of course, the actors may not want to continue if their partner leaves the scene of the crimes. In 2009, Hargitay told TV Guide Magazine that she "absolutely would not" return to SVU without Meloni. (So far, the two have negotiated as a team.) Meloni agreed that "the show really does hinge on the Benson and Stabler dynamic." At the time of the 2009 negotiations, he said he "was fully prepared not to come back. It wouldn't have been the end of the world for me." A source close to the actors says they have not yet been approached with a new deal, but currently, the "vibe on set is very happy."

As for LOLA, industry sources say NBC feels they have a "longtime player" in the palm-tree edition, and they'll take the time and effort to nurture it after its February relaunch on Tuesdays at 10pm. "LOLA is still finding its audience, but it's been as successful or even more successful than most of NBC's entries this year," adds Carroll.

The imminent arrival of NBC's new owner, cable company Comcast, and new entertainment chief, Robert Greenblatt, could change the equation. "Since NBC is so challenged, the new owner could start from scratch", says Carroll. "I would anticipate that they would try and hold on to their more successful shows and try and build on that. NBC has few identifiable programs now, but if you show a picture of Meloni and Hargitay, immediately it's Law & Order: SVU, it's NBC. I don't think you walk away from that unless you absolutely have to."

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