"Law & Order" has been denied the TV record: NBC just moments ago pulled the plug on a genuine New York institution, and the show will end forever on May 24, the 20th season and series finale.

As has been widely reported, another season would have given "L&O" the record as TV's longest-running prime-time drama, surpassing "Gunsmoke," which also stopped at 20 (March 31, 1975, to be exact).

But given this afternoon's news, falling short of the record seems almost inconsequential: "Law & Order" has been the single most important prime-time TV production in Manhattan for 20 years, employing thousands before and behind the camera. Indeed, "L&O" revived a moribund industry here, while establishing a once bleak west-side location on the Hudson River into a bustling shopping and production haven.

Jeff Gaspin, the chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, said in a statement,  "The full measure of the collective contributions made by Dick Wolf and his 'Law & Order' franchise over the last two decades to the success of NBC and Universal Media Studios cannot be overstated. The legacy of his original ‘Law & Order’ series will continue to make an impact like no other series before."

Reports circulated late yesterday that NBC had pulled the plug, although those were denied by the network, which insisted "talks were on-going." There were also reports that NBC had punted the show to TNT - denied, again, by both parties.

But the stories and denials virtually mirrored those three years ago, when "L&O" was last on the brink - a show deemed too "old" and "expensive" for a network hell-bent on cutting costs and dragging younger viewers to the schedule. At the time, TNT was also said to be in negotiations to take the show. The practical effect of the negotiations between Wolf and NBC, however, were a slashing of the show's production budget (estimated at $4 million per episode, pricey even by pricey network standards). "L&O" got a reprieve and has pretty much limped along ever since - a minor player on the network's schedule, and a distant second to "L&O:SVU," which commands most of the promotion budget and most of the viewers. ("SVU" is produced in New Jersey;" while the mother show and "CI" have been produced at Chelsea piers.)

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"L&O" launched way back on Sept. 13, 1990, when the big guns on the NBC schedule were "Cosby," "Cheers" and "Golden Girls." As conceived by Wolf, the show's formula would begin with the crime, followed by the investigation and - in the second half - resolution of the crime by the D.A. 

Or, as the famous voiceover prologue had it: "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories."

And how - about 600 of their stories over the years, many of them famously "ripped from headlines" that were instantly familiar to viewers, and included everything the Preppy Murder to (even) David Letterman's extortion case.

  What often made "L&O" a great show - as opposed to a hackneyed formulaic one - was Wolf's insistence on moral relativity, in which cases and their resolutions were never or rarely open and shut, but were buffeted by complex moral or political considerations. Jack McCoy and his many predecessors were not merely top law-enforcers, but running for office as well - and politicians tend to have their own considerations in these jobs, or at least in "L&O's" estimation.

   The show was a wonder of New York TV: It employed hundreds of seasoned actors, many of them in between gigs, or waiting for the next casting call on a Broadway show. It also attracted top-flight stage actors like Sam Waterston, who was wedded to the show for so many years in part because he wanted to remain in New York.

 And unlike other TV shows that have collected New York footage from their so-called "second unit" and pretend to be New York City shows - "NYPD Blue" being the most

famous example -  "L&O" was as much a part of this city as the stench of the subway or the fragrance of Central Park on a June day. Everything viewers saw was shot here, and other great shows to follow - from "The Sopranos" to "30 Rock" followed suit.

  Indeed, until "L&O” came along, New York was considered "too expensive" or "too difficult" to mount a program in, or too much of a pain to get around in. After its first season, "L&O" instantly dashed those prejudices, and revived the New York TV production community, which was almost fully dependent on daytime soaps (and many of those had even moved to L.A.)

     The cast was legendary - George Dzunda, Chris Noth, Paul Sorvino (who famously quit to launch an opera career) Benjamin Bratt, Jesse L. Martin, Fred Thompson (who famously quit to launch a presidential career), and many many others.

  And of course, the institutions within this institution: S. Epatha Merkerson and Jerry Orbach.

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   In an almost bitter addendum to NBC's announcement, the network said that in fact "Law & Order" would live on in yet another spin-off. The name of the new one? "Law & Order: Los Angeles."

MORE

- Building the ultimate ensemble cast of "Law & Order"
- Top 5 Thursday: Best second-chair ADAs on "Law & Order"

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