LAW & ORDER (NBC)
Why post this on Wednesday? Law & Order aired sixteen of its twenty total seasons on Wednesdays at 10/9c, the only exceptions being the first two seasons (Tuesday), the 17th season (Friday), and the 20th season (Friday and Monday).
See (who saw) how it all began: Sadly, it's one of three shows that's too old for my ratings digging skillz, so about the first decade of the show's run is mostly a mystery for me from an adults 18-49 standpoint. TVTango says the series premiere got 14 million viewers, and there's a ton of household info there that I won't reproduce here, but suffice to say it looks like the early aughts are reasonably close to being at the show's peak performance. So I can sorta say that maybe, just maybe...
The best of times: ...the best of times were in the early 2000's, when the show was averaging slightly north of a 7.0 demo in originals based on my limited data. An article I read for the 5/16/01 rating said that the show's 9.2/24 A18-49 rating on that evening was a series high, and my guess is that it remained the series high. So this was certainly never nearly as big as long-running Thursday counterpart ER, which had quite a few seasons that averaged higher than L&O's 9.2 peak. The best run of episodes was the end of that 2000-01 season (season 11) and the beginning of season 12, which was really the only time I have the show breaking an 8.0 demo with any regularity.
The worst of times: Starting with around season 13 (2002-03), the show pretty much divebombed, taking double-digit percentage drops almost every season and actually getting shoved out of its historic Wednesday timeslot to Friday for the 2006-07 season. The show does deserve some credit for its one year of recovery in Season 18, when it got moved back to Wednesday during midseason 2008, but a lot of its achievements during that season came against all repeats on its writer's strike-hampered opponents. And just two years later, it had dropped a staggering 48% from that season 18 average. Its series low was a pretty pathetic 1.2 demo for the first two eps of season 20 on 9/25/09 and 10/2/09.
Then vs. now: After the bad start on Friday in season 20, it rose into the mid-1's, not a bad Nielsen for a Friday player. Combined with a widely quoted Angela Bromstad line about how she didn't want to be the person to deny Law & Order its record, most people felt it would return in 2010-11 for a 21st season. That would've put it past Gunsmoke for most seasons for a primetime drama. Instead, as is so often the case, money talked, and they weren't able to get a suitable financial situation in place to bring the show back. It's easy to see why this was a struggle, as the demo ratings for season 20 were less than a fourth of what they'd been nearly a decade ago, and the average season 20 episode spent about half its runtime listing executive producer credits. (OK, maybe a minor exaggeration...) So Law & Order will have to settle for a tie with Gunsmoke in seasons and remain well behind in episode count. That's still a pretty remarkable achievement, and the L&O brand marches on without the mothership in 2010-11. New spinoff Law & Order: LA will inherit L&O's historic Wednesday hour in the fall.
Adults 18-49 info by season:
|11||2000-01||5.8||7.24||9.2||13/24, 1 prelim|
|12||2001-02||6.2||7.44||8.8||18/24, 1 prelim|
|20||2009-10||Fri 8:00, Mon 10:00||1.2||1.64||2.0|
|Premiere||Average||Finale||P -> F|
For more on The War of 18-49, my look at the history of primetime TV's veteran shows, see the Index.