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‘SVU’ fans worry about show as stars negotiate contracts

Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, the stars of NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” negotiated deals worth about $6.5 million a season two years ago. The actors’ contracts expire this year.NBC (NBC / The Spokesman-Review)
Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, the stars of NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” negotiated deals worth about $6.5 million a season two years ago. The actors’ contracts expire this year.NBC (NBC / The Spokesman-Review)
Frazier Moore Associated Press

Let the dance begin at “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

In a time-honored TV ritual, Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay are negotiating new contracts with the show. Presumably each has hopes of sweetening the deal for continuing to star in the venerable NBC drama, where, next fall, they would begin their 11th season.

This hardly unexpected moment, which marks the expiration of their previous two-year deals, is prompting much speculation from the sidelines – and much hand-wringing by “SVU” fans at reports that the studio just might opt to replace one or both of these beloved actors with cheaper models.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time this sort of haggling has happened. It’s not even the first time for the “SVU” co-stars, who went through reportedly bitter negotiations two years ago. Then, they each emerged with deals worth roughly $6.5 million per season.

Now, it’s time to do it again, and many of the dance steps will likely seem familiar. But how much different is the media landscape in 2009?

On one side of the negotiating table: Meloni and Hargitay, whose refusal to sign on the dotted line could disrupt and even destroy the most-watched scripted series on the NBC schedule, averaging 9.5 million viewers weekly.

Does NBC really want to jeopardize a show it perhaps needs now more than ever?

On the other side: Dick Wolf, chieftain of the “Law & Order” empire and a famously tough bargainer whose original “Law & Order” series has been a revolving door for actors who might otherwise demand rising salaries.

Meanwhile, NBC Universal, owner of the studio and the network, is, like most media outlets, feeling a money pinch and may have concluded that, in these hard times, the “SVU” stars’ payday is sufficient.

Besides, NBC has five fewer hours to worry about next season, thanks to the weeknight prime-time Jay Leno show it will introduce.

So far, NBC isn’t even confirming the return of “SVU.” But with that all-but-certain declaration, what if the network also announced that Hargitay or Meloni or even both stars would be replaced next season by newcomers? Who could fill the shoes of either of these veterans, and replicate the chemistry between them that has played a large part in the series’ success?

Another variable, of course: Just how eager are the co-stars to log yet another year or two, however sweet their new deals might be?

In an interview last summer, Meloni spoke of “other creative opportunities pulling at me. That makes it more difficult to stay focused (on ‘SVU’). … The sounds of ‘what’s out there’ are louder.”

Representatives for both him and Hargitay have declined to comment on the current situation.

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