It’s a mystery worthy of Detective Lennie Briscoe: Why isn’t the original Law & Order — the flagship series in what’s arguably the most successful TV brand ever created — currently available on any American streaming platform? Virtually every other big show launched in the 1990s, from ER and Friends to Seinfeld and The X-Files, has now found a digital home. Law & Order spinoff SVU, while slowly disappearing from Netflix, is available to stream in its entirety on Hulu. But the mothership, the series which launched Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding empire of procedural dramas back in 1990, remains stubbornly absent from any subscription video-on-demand service. It’s a pop-culture crime, one which demands solving. Vulture decided to investigate. Dun-DUN!
Like any good detective, we began our hunt for the truth by ruling out any obvious suspects in The Case of Where’s L&O? After all, this isn’t the first time the chief — er, our editor — has assigned us to the missing-shows beat. Unfortunately, the usual culprits don’t seem to apply with Law & Order. While music rights and the costs associated with making an older show ready for the digital age have delayed or prevented some classic series from landing a streaming home (or even launching on DVD), those aren’t factors with Law & Order. Up until late 2014, the first eight seasons of the show were a staple on Netflix. And then they just vanished, forcing die-hard fans who wanted on-demand access to the OG L&O crew to either buy digital downloads of each episode or to pay $300 for the full series DVD collection. (For the frugal, reruns of the original series can be seen on the Ion broadcast network or on cable via AMC Networks–owned channels We and Sundance, the latter of which offer a handful of rotating episodes for streaming on demand.)
That L&O would leave Netflix back in 2014 isn’t particularly surprising. Classic series come and go from the streamer regularly, either because Netflix decides it no longer wants to pay an outside studio to license the show, or because said studio gets a better offer from a rival platform. For example, The Wonder Years left Netflix in the fall of 2017 after a six-year run, only to pop up on Hulu a year later. Indeed, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu both have rich libraries of classic shows, with the latter proving to be particularly aggressive of late in snatching up popular faves of yore long missing from streaming, including ER and The Golden Girls. Plus, as noted, Hulu is also home to SVU, making it (at least in theory) a logical contender to also carry that show’s predecessor. That’s why it’s so confounding, more than four years after its Netflix exit, that L&O remains a digital ghost.
To unravel this mystery, we first reached out to reps for NBCUniversal, which produced the show and controls the streaming rights. Big corporations aren’t in the habit of freely gabbing about how they manage their various creative properties, so we didn’t expect the Comcast-owned company to issue a long statement detailing exactly what’s been going on with such an important asset. But a spokesman for the company responded to our questions with a flat “no comment.” Two different representatives for Dick Wolf also stayed silent when we sought guidance, declining to even offer any not-for-attribution background information about any factors that have kept the series from streaming, or any future plans to return it to the digital airwaves.
Our gumshoe role models on Law & Order often have doors slammed in their faces (literally, rather than metaphorically!), so we kept poking around the various back alleys of Hollywood in search of answers. (Translation: We kept emailing sources.) And finally, after some prodding, we hit upon a couple of leads. According to two well-informed sources with knowledge of the streaming business, it appears Law & Order is a victim of its own success — specifically, its early triumph as a weekly series on a broadcast network. Wolf’s creation lasted for 20 years and, more importantly, a jaw-dropping 456 hour-long episodes. When it finally wrapped up in 2010, it tied Gunsmoke as TV’s longest-running drama series. As awesome as this fact is for Wolf and fans of the show, it’s actually a handicap when it comes to selling L&O streaming rights. “The series has so many episodes that the show would be pretty expensive to license in its entirety,” as one person familiar with the economics involved tells Vulture.
That’s because in the business of TV syndication — a.k.a., a show’s life once it finishes its initial series run — its financial value is tied directly to how many episodes it produced. This was true even in the days before streaming: Cable networks such as TBS would make deals for hit network sitcoms such as Friends or The Big Bang Theory years before they finished their runs, agreeing to pay a per-episode fee that would be based on how many episodes ultimately got produced. The networks didn’t mind this, because more episodes meant more potential advertising revenue could be gleaned from their linear schedules. But in the streaming world, bigger isn’t always better.
Sure, Netflix and Hulu are constantly looking to add more and more content to drive greater engagement, and keep subscribers on their sofas streaming for hours on end. And they don’t mind shows with big libraries, either: Netflix just agreed to spend another $80 million to keep all 236 episodes of Friends on the service for another year. But the full series run of L&O contains nearly twice as many episodes (and about four times as much overall content, since it was a one-hour drama). What’s more, while sitcoms such as Friends and The Office have lightly serialized story arcs (think Ross and Rachel, or Pam and Jim), Wolf deliberately created his drama to be as self-contained as possible, focusing every episode on cases and offering little to no exposition regarding the lives of its regular characters. As such, streaming-industry insiders say the original L&O might not be as valuable as a show where audiences feel compelled to click ahead to the next episode. Bottom line: The combination of a procedural format and a huge price tag may very well explain Law & Order’s prolonged absence from the streaming marketplace. “It really comes down to whether a streamer believes the original series would drive enough viewing [and] subscriber retention to be worth the high licensing cost,” our source knowledgeable in streaming economics explains.
All of this is not to suggest L&O won’t be back on a streaming platform in the future, perhaps even sometimes soon. As noted earlier, all seasons of SVU are now streaming on Hulu. Given SVU this spring will match the 20-season run of L&O, clearly it’s not impossible for a streaming platform to absorb the cost of such a long-running series. NBCUniversal could also decide to price the original series at a more favorable rate, prompting Hulu, Amazon, or Netflix to do a deal for the show. (Worth noting: Amazon Prime Video’s leadership ranks now include at least two former NBC execs who worked very closely with Wolf, though there are no indications they’re even mulling doing a deal for L&O.)
The most likely path back to streaming for Law & Order, however, seems to be through the ad-supported streaming platform NBCUniversal parent Comcast is planning to launch next year. Much the way Disney has started taking back its big film titles from Netflix to help boost its upcoming Netflix alternative Disney+, Comcast may want to make the original L&O one of the centerpieces of its own service. Doing so would still come with a cost, since Wolf has an ownership stake in the series and would surely demand to be fairly compensated. But NBC has had talks with Wolf before about using his branded properties (which now also include the Chicago series) to create value for the company’s content platforms. A few years ago, there were reports Wolf and NBC were in discussions to turn the Oxygen cable channel into a Wolf-centric true-crime network. While Oxygen did make the switch to crime, the Wolf branding never happened. But the fact that such talks took place at all underscores why NBC Universal/Comcast would want to work out a way to put as much of the Wolf Films library — including L&O — on a new service. Assuming the notoriously independent-minded Wolf feels the same way, this could be the way the detectives of Law & Order finally return to the streaming universe.
More From This Series
- A Very Simple Guide to True Detective’s Multiple Timelines
- True Detecting True Detective: Let’s Lay Odds on Who the Killer Is
- Extremely Wicked Director on How Ted Bundy ‘Seduced’ His Victims
- The Ocean’s Effect: How the 2001 Film Changed the Heist Movie For a Generation
- Why Is TV So Addicted to Crime?