|Dick Wolf, the creator/executive producer who turned a single drama -- "Law & Order" -- into a mega-enterprise, has sealed a big-bucks deal to stick with Studios USA through August 2006.|
Wolf's new pact includes an eight-figure advance from the backend sale of "L&O" and its spawn, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Wolf had previously been hitched to the studio through early 2003.
"The deal is reflective of the success of the franchise," Wolf said. "(USA topper) Barry (Diller) and I have what I would consider an extremely positive working relationship. There's a great deal of mutual respect."
Wolf said the new deal is similar in scope to his previous arrangement with Studios USA. Wolf will continue to develop new projects and oversee the "L&O'" trilogy.
Going the distance
"Law & Order" has been renewed by NBC through 2005, which will make it the second longest-running drama series in TV history; "SVU" is in its third year, while frosh "CI" recently got a full-season pickup. Wolf is also developing the reality drama "Trial & Error" for NBC's midseason schedule.
"This is not the land of screaming fights and slammed doors," Wolf said. "When you've got four hourlong shows on NBC and they're all being made at Studios USA, it seems to be a formula that's working. Why would anybody turn over the apple cart?"
Keeping Dick Wolf and Wolf Films in the fold was also crucial for Studios USA. As a studio not aligned with any network, Studios USA depends on a franchise like "L&O" to give it some much-needed leverage. When Sony decided to shut down Columbia TriStar Television last month, pundits argued that a property like "L&O" might have made the difference.
"Obviously it couldn't be more important; the franchise has never been stronger," USA Television Production Group prexy David Kissinger said. "We are the fortunate custodians of that incredible business. We are very eager to have an extended relationship with Dick Wolf."
Fourth in future
While Wolf said he's kicking around ideas for a fourth edition of "L&O," nothing is in the works just yet.
"I know what 'Law & Order 4' is, but it's not in active development," Wolf said. "I'm not putting a timetable on it. It's clearly not for next fall."
In sticking with Studios USA, Wolf said he was also pleased with how Diller and the studio had previously sealed a landmark deal with NBC to keep "Law & Order" on the Peacock through 2005.
Under that arrangement, which Wolf said he was a "big fan of," Studios USA managed to carve out a secondary cable window to air "SVU" (and later, "CI") on USA Network.
"As much as the affiliates may have bitched initially because they're still living in 1952, the dual window has given 'SVU' a lot more exposure," Wolf said. "I think dual windows help new shows, not hurt them. That was the single most profound re-architecture of the series business since I've been in the series business, and that's been a while."
As for "SVU's" backend, USA Network locked up the show in late May for about $1.3 million per episode. While other producers such as Steven Bochco and Chris Carter have taken to task their studio (in those cases, 20th Century Fox) for selling their series to a sister cabler, Wolf said USA sold "SVU" to its cable outlet with his complete blessing. Skein will be stripped on USA starting in September 2003.
"One of Barry's mantras for as long as I've known him is 'fair market value,' " Wolf said.
Given that USA Network also airs the dual window of "CI," it's fairly likely that the cabler will pick up the off-net rights to the show. Wolf said that's fine -- "as long as we achieve the same level of equity as we did with 'SVU.' "
Meanwhile, the original "L&O" continues to pay dividends. TNT is paying $700,000 per seg to strip episodes of "L&O" from the 1998-99 season and beyond. Also, the net will start airing the second cycle of "L&O's" first 181 episodes starting next fall. TNT agreed to pay about $250,000 per episode for those segs -- or almost double the amount A&E paid for "L&O's" original off-net run.
Wolf, of course, stands to reap tens of millions of dollars for his stake in those series' backends.
Goal in mind
Meanwhile, Wolf repeated his hope that "Law & Order" would eventually surpass "Gunsmoke" to become the longest-running series drama in history. In its 12th season, the show has garnered 10 consecutive Emmy nominations for drama series and one win (in 1997). According to Wolf, between repeats and broadcast airings, "Law & Order" and its spinoffs air a total of 27 times per week.
"The one thing that I am extraordinarily grateful for is we have what is truly a brand," Wolf said. "What this year has shown is familiarity breeds comfort. And without that kind of brand identity it's tough to break through with new shows."
Beyond the "L&O" franchise, Wolf's other credits include "New York Undercover" and "Players" along with writing stints on "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice." Wolf also penned the feature film "School Ties."
Wolf's deal was brokered by UTA, attorney Cliff Gilbert-Lurie and business manager Bob Philpott.