How Many More Seasons Until ‘NCIS’ Catches up to ‘Law & Order?’

From 1990 to the mid-2000s, Law & Order remained one of the most-watched shows on television, drawing in millions of viewers each week. Many thought the show would never end, as it even went on to catalyze the mega-successful Law & Order: SVU, which is still on the air. Yet today, NCIS is giving the show a run for its money —in terms of longevity, viewership numbers, and audience demographics. So, how much longer does NCIS need to stay on the air to catch up to Law & Order?

Mark Harmon and Emily Wickersham in ‘NCIS’ | Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

‘Law & Order’ ran for 20 seasons; ‘NCIS’ was recently greenlit for its 18th 

Law & Order ran for 20 seasons; the show premiered on September 20 in 1990, and the last episode hit small screens on May 24 in 2010. Not only is 20 seasons a major industry accomplishment, but one must also remember that Law & Order debuted at a time when most shows consisted of about 23 episodes per season. While Netflix and Amazon originals have resorted to shorter (10-episode or so) seasons, NCIS also sticks to this old-school, Network TV layout. 

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NCIS debuted on September 23 in 2003, and the show’s 17th season just came to an end. The show has been greenlit for the 18th season; meaning, the show must confirm two more seasons to tie Law & Order, and three more seasons to beat the legacy series. Yet, Law & Order and NCIS have more in common than years on the air. And, their similar approaches may be one of the main reasons for their success. 

What ‘Law & Order’ and ‘NCIS’ have in common 

Law & Order and NCIS both present weekly cases — a criminal that must be out-witted, a murderer that needs to be jailed, a dirty cop that must be brought into the light, and so on. Yet, these weekly narratives are only one piece of the intricate puzzle. These crimes and mysteries are episodic in nature (most of the time); meaning, the case is solved by the end of the episode. Yet, how the case impacts those involved is life-long.

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Both series allow for long-gestating character arcs to surface, often reigning supreme over the cases at hand. Viewers see how cases affect those assigned to them — psychologically and emotionally. Audiences witness how morally questionable acts lead to internal conflict and trauma. These multi-seasonal character journeys are a major reason both shows won audiences over. One can jump in and jump out; watch a few episodes here, and then stop watching. Yet, viewers who keep up with the show will have a more complex viewing experience. 

The success of both shows also led to successful spinoffs. Thanks to Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent exist. Thanks to NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans exist. The shows grew beyond themselves, transforming into franchises, for they seem to have found the formula that works best for network TV.