'Criminal Intent' Takes Case to Cable

There will, in fact, only be two "Law & Order" series on NBC next year. But the third is staying in the Peacock's family.

In a move NBC is calling "groundbreaking," the youngest member of the "L&O" family, "Criminal Intent," will move to cable for the 2007-08 season. First-run episodes will air on USA -- which is part of the NBC Universal conglomerate -- and will be repurposed on the broadcast network a short time later. That's a reverse of the current arrangement.

The original "Law & Order," meanwhile, will stay on NBC for its 18th season, continuing its reign as the longest-running drama currently on television. It will hit 400 episodes early next season.

"We have significantly strengthened the already powerful USA network, given NBC maximum flexibility, and in the process have changed the paradigm of prime-time television," NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker says in a statement. "By changing the traditional way programs are rolled out, we have reinforced NBC Universal's forward-thinking approach to new programming strategies and our willingness to embrace bold thinking."

The moves end a whirl of speculation about the fate of "Law & Order" and "Criminal Intent," which have taken ratings hits this season and were considered on the bubble for renewal (the third and most-watched "L&O" series, "Special Victims Unit," got an early pickup in January).

One scenario had the mothership moving to TNT, which owns the rights to repeats of the show. Shifting "Criminal Intent" to USA, however, keeps all three shows in the NBCU family -- the company's studio arm, NBC Universal TV Studio, also produces the shows. As part of the deal, the studio has extended its deal with executive producer Dick Wolf for several more seasons.

"I am thrilled and delighted that Wolf Films and NBC Universal will continue the longest-running and most successful partnership in television," Wolf says. "This is a win-win for everybody. ... This is the tip of the sphere of a new media paradigm."

The deal will likely be a boon to USA. "Criminal Intent" averaged 8.9 million viewers on NBC this season; USA's top-rated shows draw about 5 million viewers.

Scheduling details, including when the "Criminal Intent" reruns will air on NBC, have yet to be finalized. NBC unveils its 2007-08 schedule at its upfront presentation Monday.