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Dick Wolf Lays Down the Law, Keeps Order

May 30, 2005  •  Post A Comment

A little more than a year ago, the union of NBC and Universal had to wait until one producer renegotiated his contract, which tied him to both partners in the merger. Of course, he wasn’t just any producer. For two decades, Dick Wolf had been a mainstay of both Universal Studios and the Peacock Network. His “Law & Order” franchise was and still is central to the success of both companies.

A year later, Mr. Wolf isn’t pleased. Though he will have three “Law & Order” shows on NBC in the fall, the network’s new schedule does not include his latest spinoff, “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” which has been on only one season. “I don’t understand the decision. I’ve made that clear to anybody who has asked,” Mr. Wolf said, his anger still smoldering more than a week after NBC announced its fall schedule in New York.

Mr. Wolf would like to remind NBC of its own history. In 1990, when the late, legendary Brandon Tartikoff, then head of the network, put the first “Law & Order” on the air, it wasn’t an instant success. Mr. Tartikoff kept it on and nurtured it into a hit. That spawned a television empire. The most successful of the “Law & Order” shows at present is “Special Victims Unit.” “To have the history they [NBC] have to draw on,” he mused last week, “this is the exact profile all the shows have had in their first year, and then they grow. [‘Trial by Jury’] would have settled into that time slot very comfortably, I am quite certain.”

Mr. Wolf says that by his count Kevin Reilly is the 31st head of programming with whom he has dealt. His count may be questionable, but there is no question Mr. Wolf has been a key to the success of NBC for two decades. For the most part he has great creative freedom. He has earned that trust. That is why it seems likely NBC will eventually find a way to make him happy once again.

Already there are rumors. Though it isn’t on the fall schedule, Mr. Wolf has heard through back-channel network sources that “Trial by Jury” may not be dead. “I keep hearing tangentially the door is open,” he said late last week, “but nobody’s called me.”

Mr. Wolf’s logic is that the “Law & Order” shows make the company a lot of money, not just on the network, where they remain profitable even if the ratings have been down on two of the three remaining shows (the original and “Criminal Intent”), but also because they have proved extremely strong in reruns and on cable channels such as A&E (which lost the rights), TNT and the USA Network.

After his deal was renegotiated last year by NBC and Universal, he said it became more of a “partnership.”

Mr. Wolf thought the parties were in agreement. “Since everybody’s in the same company and eating out of the same bowl, we should work together,” he said. “The long-term planning is much more in agreement, which is to keep the shows on as long as possible.”

Due to its Wolf-designed economic model, “Law & Order” doesn’t have as big a problem with soaring star salaries as the show ages. Over time, star salaries soar and production costs mount. On “Law & Order,” the show is the star. While there may be recognizable performers, none stay on forever. “In its 16th year, ‘Law & Order’ on a cost basis is still less than most third- or fourth-year shows, because of the ensemble nature and the fact that we do things much more efficiently than most production companies. We know how to control costs,” he said. “You’re also dealing with stuff that was billed years ago. A lot of costs on new shows, in terms of getting it up and running, has all been taken care of.”

Mr. Wolf likes to freshen up his casts, and by doing so keeps salaries under control. “The fact is on a revenue basis these shows are making more money than they ever have,” Mr. Wolf said. “This is not a secret. In 2004 the three shows on the air generated more than a billion dollars in advertising revenue. Not many groups of shows that are part of network schedules generate that kind of revenue.”

Mr. Wolf grew up around show business. His mother worked in TV publicity. His father was head of production at two ad agencies in the days when agencies produced many of the shows. He found his first success in advertising, where he authored lines like “Scope fights bad breath without medicine breath.”

He learned about branding by observing companies such as Procter & Gamble. Just as P&G can sell numerous versions of Crest toothpaste, his vision was to extend the brand of his franchise shows and sell it on multiple platforms on a global scale.

He moved west in 1977 and started writing for “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice,” which led him into producing. He has had flops, but Mr. Wolf has been able to build on his successes, spinning off more shows. He is currently developing an untitled comedy for NBC, to be directed by the legendary James Burrows, whose touch has helped launch shows such as “Cheers” and “Two and a Half Men.” It could be for midseason on NBC.

“When you come out of advertising you understand the programming,” Mr. Wolf said. “Television is free because of advertising. Commercial television is merely a life-support system for commercials.”

That is cause for concern these days, Mr. Wolf added, because of new technology such as TiVo: “It affects everything. It’s one of those things that is an increase in technology that may not accrue to the benefit of the people who are pushing for it right now.”

That doesn’t mean Mr. Wolf is ready to give up on network TV. He said the success of “Desperate Housewives” proves broadcast remains vital. “The thing I found exhilarating about this season is that it shows once again that the imminent demise of network television has been overreported,” he said. “There are troublesome things on the horizon, from TiVo to video-on-demand. How do you monetize this? What are advertisers going to do? But it’s still out there. There’s still no other way to consistently reach 20 [million] or 30 million people at a pop.”

“And the good news,” he added, “is when good shows are on, even at the same time, people will come. It’s still the 800-pound gorilla, and on some nights it can be the 900-pound gorilla again.”

Among producers, Mr. Wolf remains one of TV’s 900-pound gorillas. Whoever is on screen in his ensemble shows, the real star is Mr. Wolf himself.