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Law & Order is bowing out after 20 years

When it was first broadcast in 1990, New York's annual murder rate peaked at 2,245.

Last year the city recorded 466 — the lowest since records began half a century ago. Unfortunately for Law & Order, the hyper-realistic New York police drama based on plots “ripped from the headlines”, the viewing figures suffered a similar decline.

Even as the show became a global franchise, its core US audience fell from 19m to about 7.3m. Now the verdict is in: the original New York version has been cancelled after a record-equalling 20 seasons. It is to be replaced by one set on the west coast called Law & Order: Los Angeles, quickly nicknamed Lola.

The decision was taken by NBC television despite the stated ambition of Dick Wolf, the producer, to break the record for a US TV series set by Gunsmoke, a cowboy drama that ran from 1955 to 1975.

The 456th and final episode of Law & Order will air in America on May 24. In New York the series became a mini-industry, employing thousands of aspiring Broadway actors. The late Jerry Orbach achieved fame as Detective Lennie Briscoe, and the series helped to launch Chris Noth, who went on to further fame in Sex and the City.

It featured guest stars ranging from Julia Roberts to Philip Seymour Hoffman. It even helped to fuel a 2008 presidential bid by Fred Thompson, a former Republican senator who became a household name playing Manhattan DA Arthur Branch.

“Over the last 20 years, Law & Order became a New York City institution,” Michael Bloomberg, the city's mayor, said. “It began filming in the city at a time when few series did, and it helped pave the way for the more than 150 television shows based here today.”

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Ray Kelly, the New York police commissioner, paid a rare tribute yesterday.

“Law & Order produced convincing detectives, prosecutors, criminals and oddball witnesses. Even the corpses were interesting,” he said.


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