Former advertising executive Dick Wolf got his start in television writing for shows like Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. But his greatest accomplishment is Law & Order, which mastered the TV-show-as-brand concept by cornering the market on cops-and-courts procedurals. (This year it ties Gunsmoke's record for longest-running scripted television program.) L&O laid the groundwork for two successor series: Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Wolf, one of the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section, talked with us about the germ of the idea that led to his gritty TV empire. He also told us what he watches.
TVGuide.com: Tell me about the conception of Law & Order as an idea. How did you pitch it?
Dick Wolf: In 1988, you could not give away hour-long shows in syndication; you could only sell half-hour shows. So the original thinking was to try to make an hour-long show that could be split in half and sold as two half-hour shows. We thought about a bunch of things, including night and day, life and death... law and order obviously moved to the front of the pack. There had never been a show about prosecutors and there had never been a split-format show. It seemed like an opportunity to capitalize on two openings in the marketplace. Luckily, we didn't have to split them because I really don't think it would have worked.
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TVGuide.com: When it comes to spin-offs, people tend to be a little cynical. When it came time to spin-off Law & Order, what was your initial reaction?
Wolf: Well, first of all, it wasn't a spin-off. It came out of a two-hour movie called Exiled with Chris Noth after he had left the show. I didn't think that a movie called Exiled would get the type of promotion or notice that would inform the public of what it was so it was originally called Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, and it became the highest-rated movie of the week of the year on NBC. That sort of clicked on a light bulb that said we can probably do this again with a new series.
But it's not a spin-off. None of the characters were ever in Law & Order that did SVU. I came out of advertising and I did a lot of work with Procter & Gamble, where nothing is better than a brand extension and nothing is worse than a brand extension that doesn't work. So there was a lot of pressure to come up with an idea that was unique enough. The one thing I knew that people have an insatiable interest in is sex — the original title was Sex Crimes — but Barry Diller didn't want to have "sex" in the title so we went with the sex crimes unit's official name [Special Victims Unit].
Then the third one was sort of obvious. Gee, we have two that work; why don't we have a third? Vincent D'Onofrio was really the only person that we had to go to. He wouldn't do TV at that point. I told him the show was basically Sherlock Holmes, completely different from L&O or SVU.
I've said for years that this is not a franchise, it's a brand. CSI, and this is not a put-down, CSI is a franchise and a franchise to me is The Palm [restaurant]. If you want to get a steak, you know that whether you're in Chicago, New York, L.A., or San Francisco, you go to the Palm and you're going to get a great steak. A brand is Mercedes: It doesn't matter which one you buy, you're going to get a really good car. It's a subtle but very distinct and overwhelmingly important difference.
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TVGuide.com: There are so many crime dramas on the schedule these days. How do you keep your shows from blending in? What makes them different?
Wolf: Well, the simplest answer is the writing. Once the writing on a show starts to suffer, the shows disappear. What's also so remarkable with L&O and certainly SVU, the show-runners are absolutely, to me, the most crucial elements of making the show work. Neal Baer has been [on SVU] for the last 10 years now; he came in the second season. Rene Balcer started on L&O in the first season as a staff writer, then developed CI with me, had that for five years, and is now back at L&O running that. CI is currently being run by Walon Green, who ran L&O in its early years. So you've got incredibly talented writers leading this show and that is really the secret of their continuing success.
TVGuide.com: Let's talk about the concept of "ripped from the headlines." How important is that to the DNA of your shows?
Wolf: Absolutely — but it's kind of a misnomer because we don't do the story. The secret of making it interesting is we take the headline but not the body copy. Like, we do a show that everybody said, it's Martha Stewart, and I said it may remind you of Martha Stewart, but Martha's never killed anybody that I know of.
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I want to talk about casting. Some of your shows have had major casting changes without much fanfare. The foundation of the show stays intact.
Wolf: We've been incredibly lucky. L&O, for example. How do you complain about going from Michael Moriarty to Sam Waterston? And from Chris Noth to Paul Sorvino to Jerry Orbach to Dennis Farina and now to the two younger cops? It's been a continuing puzzle and a joy to me to be able to do this, but at the same time miscasting could really, really hurt any of the shows.
On Criminal Intent, Vincent had taken his character as far as he wanted to take it after eight seasons, so we're moving to literally an entirely new cast. But how can I say, gee, too bad we had to do that, when the new cast is Jeff Goldblum and Saffron Burrows and [Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio].
TVGuide.com: Is it a conscious choice not to give us too much personal information about your characters?
Wolf: Yes. I don't know how many newsrooms you've been in, but if you look around in those newsrooms, in your mind how many of those people's apartments have you been in? People come, they go, you see them at work, you don't know whether they're married to a beauty pageant winner or somebody you go, wow, how did he end up with her or how did she end up with him? It frees up what we do in these shows, which are police procedurals.
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TVGuide.com: Law & Order now ties Gunsmoke for the record for longest-running drama. Is capturing that record important to you?
Wolf: What do you think? It's fabulous, it's unheard of, obviously there's 60 years of commercial television and God knows how many hundreds if not thousands of series that have been on over the last 60 years, and we're tied to the longest run in history. If we come back next year, we'll have the record. It's one of the few things that I can honestly say I'd be incredibly disappointed not to achieve.
TVGuide.com: Who or what TV shows inspired you?
Wolf: There have been great shows from the time I was growing up, starting with Dragnet, The Defenders, NYPD, Naked City, now we're going back to shows nobody under 55 has even heard of. Steve Cannell is an old friend of mine, and my absolute favorite hour-long show of all time is The Rockford Files. If you look at it today, it's still contemporary because the writing is fabulous. It's always the writing that distinguishes the good from the average.
TVGuide.com: What are you watching these days?
Wolf: I loved The Sopranos. The CSIs are not my cup of tea, but I know they're good shows. The first season of True Blood blew me away. I'm also still really proud of the shows that I worked on: Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues. I kind of like Dancing with the Stars: It's on at 8 o'clock and it's kind of light; it's really fascinating to see people get in shape that quickly. I watch a lot of news. Probably at midnight or 12:30 every night, I turn to The Military Channel. I think Discovery has some of the most fascinating shows, like Deadliest Catch, which is great. I love TV. I probably watch more than is good for me.