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AMC Investigates Reviving Law & Order

AMC has already shown its propensity for zombies with its upcoming thriller series The Walking Dead. And now comes word that the network has shown some interest in another stumbling corpse: Law & Order. Sources tell Vulture that the home to groundbreaking hours Mad Men and Breaking Bad has approached NBC Universal about the possibility of producing new episodes of Dick Wolf’s long-running and recently canceled drama. The high price associated with making Wolf's show means that any AMC deal is a long shot, but the fact that conversations have taken place at all is a sign that, even after two decades, the original L&O still might not be ready for burial.

When we last left the saga of L&O in late May, NBC had decided to cancel the so-called mother ship of the franchise, citing low ratings and (relatively) high production costs: According to sources familiar with the matter, the show costs around $3 million an episode. NBC was willing to keep it going, but only if Wolf agreed to reduce his per-episode producer fee from $350,000 per episode to around $150,000 per episode. Wolf, who'd already made other financial concessions to NBC, balked, and L&O was declared over. Refusing to concede defeat, Wolf issued a statement declaring that his show was "in a medically induced coma" and that he was "hoping for a cure." That led to buzz that TNT might step in to save the day, as they have first right of refusal to make new episodes for cable; that talk was quashed when the network issued a statement flatly saying it was "not interested in a Season 21."

Enter AMC, which in recent weeks quietly approached NBC Universal to inquire about just how much money would be needed to produce original episodes. While $3 million an episode isn’t an outrageous sum for a broadcast show — particularly one as old as L&O — AMC execs would have to swallow hard before agreeing to pay that high a price, says a person familiar with cable-industry economic models. Right now, the network reportedly shells out in the neighborhood of $30 million per year (or around $2.5 million per episode) for Men and Bad. And given how much effort and money AMC has invested in establishing its brand as the home to edgy, unique series, it seems hard to imagine the network spending a big chunk of its budget on a show that's so familiar, not to mention so ubiquitous (airing on NBC, TNT, USA, and local TV stations).

There hasn't been any movement on the matter since the original discussions, but there are reasons why AMC might want to open up its wallet: While ratings for Bad and Men have been rising, they're still relatively small compared to other cable hits. Last month's Breaking Bad season finale, for example, was watched by just 1.6 million viewers, as compared to the 3 million or so who tuned in for June’s Drop Dead Diva premiere on Lifetime. And last spring, 3.5 million viewers watched first-run episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent on USA: Assuming L&O could generate similar numbers on AMC, the established series could prove to be a potent way for AMC to market its homegrown shows to viewers who might not already be hip to the unique charms of Don Draper and Walter White. It could also help AMC in its efforts to get cable operators to pay more per subscriber, as right now, the channel pulls in roughly half as much per potential viewer as do bigger nets like FX and USA. (AMC and NBC execs could not be reached late Tuesday for comment.)

Photo: NBC