In 1988, Dick Wolf developed a concept for a new television series that would depict a relatively optimistic picture of the American criminal justice system. He initially toyed with the idea of calling it Night & Day, but then decided upon the title Law & Order. The first half of each episode would follow two detectives (a senior and a junior detective) and their commanding officer as they investigate a violent crime.
The second half of the episode would follow the District Attorney’s Office and the courts as two prosecutors, with advice from the District Attorney himself, attempt to convict the accused. Through this, Law & Order would be able to investigate some of the larger issues of the day by focusing on stories that were based on real cases making headlines.
Wolf took the idea to then-president of Universal Television Kerry McCluggage, who pointed out the similarity to a 1963 series titled Arrest and Trial, which lasted one season. The two watched the pilot of that series in which a police officer (Ben Gazzara) arrested a man for armed robbery in the first half, and the defense attorney, played by Chuck Connors, gets the perpetrator off as the wrong guy in the second half; this was the formula of the show every week.
Wolf decided that, while his detectives would occasionally also be fallible, he wanted a fresh approach to the genre, to go from police procedural to prosecution with a greater degree of realism. In addition, the prosecution would be the hero, a reversal of the usual formula in lawyer dramas
Initially, Fox ordered 13 episodes based on the concept alone, with no pilot, but then-network head Barry Diller reversed the decision. Although he loved the idea, he didn’t believe it was a “Fox show.” Wolf then went to CBS, which ordered a pilot, “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman”, written by Wolf about corrupt city officials involved with the mob. The network liked the pilot but did not order it because there were no breakout stars.
In the summer of 1989, NBC’s top executives, Brandon Tartikoff and Warren Littlefield screened the pilot and liked it; but they were concerned the intensity of the series could not be repeated week after week. However, by 1990, NBC executives had enough confidence that the innovative show could appeal to a wide audience that they ended up ordering the series for a full season.