|FOR Dick Wolf, the burly former advertising executive who created the “Law & Order” franchise 16 years ago, the news this past spring was often as grim as the yellow-taped crime scenes depicted on the original series and its various spinoffs and imitators.|
In early May, NBC canceled his most recent offering, “Conviction,” about life among young prosecutors in New York City, after only a 13-week run — and only a year after the network pulled the plug on a predecessor, “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” that had explored similar dramatic territory using the same stage sets in Astoria, Queens.
Later in the month, when the final Nielsen numbers were tabulated, Mr. Wolf could surely celebrate the ratings for one of his three remaining series, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which were up for the year, propelling it to a Top 20 finish among prime-time network shows. But any good feelings were leavened by the dwindling audience for the original “Law & Order,” which was down 15 percent over all from the previous season and down 30 percent over two years. The viewership for another spinoff, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” the lowest-rated in the franchise, also receded substantially.
Those last two performances have raised questions about whether there is still a critical mass of network television viewers for three hours of original “Law & Order” programming each week, especially when increasing numbers of them are flocking to other so-called procedurals — including three iterations of “CSI” as well as “Without a Trace,” “NCIS” and “Cold Case.” All six of those crime dramas are on CBS, and each drew more viewers last season than any version of “Law & Order,” according to Nielsen Media Research.
And yet when Mr. Wolf, 59, maneuvered his 6-foot-4 frame behind a table at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan for breakfast recently, his mood was ebullient, his enthusiasm for his surviving shows seemingly undiminished. The main reason, at least at that moment, was a front-page headline in that morning’s New York Post, which blared: “KING OF BLING BUSTED — JACOB THE JEWELER IN COKE-CASH RAP.”
Paraphrasing the story for a visitor, Mr. Wolf described how Jacob Arabo, an immigrant from Uzbekistan whose creations had draped Madonna, Diddy and other performers, was being accused of laundering money for a drug network in Detroit. “That,” he said with assurance, “will be a ‘Law & Order’ next year.”
While Mr. Wolf was signaling that he will continue, as he has from the inception of “Law & Order,” to rely on real-life headlines to seed the plots for the coming season, many other elements of the shows will be unfamiliar to regular viewers. During this summer’s hiatus, “the brand,” as he is fond of calling the original and its spinoffs, is undergoing its most sweeping makeover since “Law & Order” first appeared on NBC in September 1990. Among television dramas, its uninterrupted run is second only to that of “Gunsmoke,” which ran from 1955 to 1975 on CBS. Little wonder that it is now seeking an infusion of energy sufficient to lure back old viewers and win new ones.
“It did start to show some age last year,” Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment, said in an interview, referring specifically to the ratings for the original “Law & Order,” though he could well have been talking about the brand as a whole. “I just think next year it could use a little bit of an ‘x’ factor to make it pop.”
Thus when the mother ship, as the original “Law & Order” is known backstage, sets sail on NBC again this fall, two stars, Dennis Farina and Annie Parisse, will be gone. They are being replaced by two actresses cast by Mr. Wolf: Milena Govich (late of “Conviction”) and Alana De La Garza (whose character on “CSI: Miami” was killed off last season).
The show will also move from Wednesdays at 10 to Fridays at 10, where it will no longer have to go up against “CSI: NY,” which, with an audience of about 14 million, outdrew “Law & Order” by about three million viewers a week last season.
On “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which is more centered on the psychology of crime than the original, Vincent D’Onofrio and Chris Noth will again alternate episodes playing lead detectives. But Mr. Noth’s character will have a new partner (Julianne Nicholson of “Conviction,” who replaces Annabella Sciorra). And both characters will report to a new commanding officer (Jamey Sheridan is leaving but has not yet been replaced) and will deal with a new assistant district attorney (Nona Gaye, who replaces Courtney B. Vance).
Even “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” the most popular show in the franchise with a viewership just shy of “CSI: NY,” will undergo a short-term casting change. Mariska Hargitay, who has received Emmy nominations over the last three seasons for her portrayal of a sex-crimes detective, will miss six of the first nine episodes. She recently gave birth to her first child, and her character will be replaced temporarily by a warrants detective played by Connie Nielsen.
“I see all of this as an opportunity,” Mr. Wolf said before being consumed by a wheezy, self-deprecating laugh. “It’s an opportunity, unless you choose badly.”
While the scale of those casting changes may be unusually high, Mr. Wolf has long been regarded as among the most skillful producers at helping acclimate audiences to new characters — whether it was Paul Sorvino replacing George Dzundza in the role of detective after Season One of the original series (followed by Jerry Orbach the following year), or Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy breaking in no fewer than four assistant district attorneys over the last decade. “If the past is any example,” said Mr. Waterston, who joined the cast in 1994, “it’s always been fresh wind coming out of these changes, though it’s been crummy to say goodbye.”
Mr. Wolf seemed less sentimental. When Ms. Parisse, whose character served as Mr. Waterston’s most recent sidekick, approached the producers last season to say she wanted to leave to pursue a movie career, Mr. Wolf said, his reaction was blunt. “It was: ‘Oh, thank you for coming in early. You don’t mind if we kill you, do you?’ ” he recalled. In the season finale, viewers saw Ms. Parisse’s character end up dead in the trunk of a car, a casualty of a drug-and-murder investigation left unresolved in anticipation of next season.
One element of “Law & Order” that sets it apart from many of its competitors is Mr. Wolf’s insistence that the show limit references to the main characters’ back stories, to keep the focus on the crime du jour. Thus over the course of 12 seasons viewers have learned little about Mr. Waterston’s McCoy beyond passing references to his love of the Chicago Bulls, his divorce and his daughter. Mr. Wolf noted that on “NYPD Blue,” by contrast, Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz, an alcoholic, lost a wife and son to violence.
“Those shows had to keep raising the bar,” he said. “When you flirt with getting into much more character-driven stuff, you end up having to go higher and higher to get the same effect. It’s like drugs.”
And yet with two new characters appearing this fall on the mother ship, Mr. Wolf said he had little choice but to devote some time to telling audiences who they are. Early on, viewers will learn that the detective played by Ms. Govich had a father and two brothers on the police force and that she herself got her gold shield with lightning speed. “Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, she’s getting her hair done,” Mr. Wolf said, setting the scene staccato-style. “A guy comes in to rob the salon. Starts pistol-whipping the girl at the front desk. She pulls her gun. He turns on her. And she drops him.”
In addition to the relative inexperience of Ms. Govich’s detective, Mr. Wolf said the writers would mine the racial tension between her character, who is white, and her partner and boss, who are black. Similarly, the writers will emphasize that the assistant district attorney played by Ms. De La Garza is Hispanic.
“Now, for better or worse, half the cast is female, and half the cast are diversified, to use the NBC word,” Mr. Wolf said.
In creating the “Law & Order” brand, Mr. Wolf drew heavily on his experience in his 20’s as an advertising executive in New York City, where, he says, he was responsible for such slogans as “You can’t beat Crest for fighting cavities.”
He later moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter, a period in which he satisfied his curiosity about true-crime stories by following a homicide detective around. “I wanted to see one of every different kind of murder,” he said, adding that his research took him to 15 crime scenes. That fascination eventually led to jobs as a writer on “Hill Street Blues” and as the show runner — a show’s day-to-day manager — on “Miami Vice.”
A native of Manhattan, Mr. Wolf now splits his time between an apartment in New York, where “Law & Order” is produced, and a home in Santa Barbara, Calif., near where it is written and edited. Mr. Wolf, whose two previous marriages ended in divorce, was married last month to Noelle Lippman, a fashion publicist.
That Mr. Wolf remains a hands-on executive producer, even after nearly two decades, was made clear to Ms. Govich during the casting for “Conviction” last year, when he ordered her to report at 6:30 one morning for a screen test on the “Law & Order” set in New York.
“He came in, took a look at the monitor as we were shooting and gave me some adjustments — more this way, more that way,” she said. “It was very helpful to know the man in charge is telling you what he wanted.”
Mr. Wolf’s high level of engagement may give the shows a unified voice, but it can also be wearing on those network executives responsible for putting them on the air, and occasionally taking them off.
“Dick is passionate, particular, demanding — very demanding, extremely demanding,” said Mr. Reilly of NBC Entertainment, who first worked with Mr. Wolf as a network development executive during the series’s first season. “He also probably has the best understanding of the broadcast business of any show runner I’ve ever come across. Which sometimes makes it difficult to debate with him or to maneuver over him with network hocus-pocus.”
Both men acknowledge that when Mr. Reilly telephoned Mr. Wolf last year to tell him that the network was canceling “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” after only half a season, the conversation was volatile. “I wouldn’t say it was a high-water mark for the relationship,” Mr. Reilly said. “I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about it.” Mr. Wolf said only that he was disappointed that NBC did not market the show as aggressively as he would have liked.
This past season, Mr. Reilly agreed to support “Conviction” with far more promotion than had been the case with “Trial by Jury.” But Mr. Wolf said the series was ultimately doomed by its time slot, on Friday nights, when few of the young viewers the network was trying to attract, à la “Grey’s Anatomy,” were home to watch.
Still, said Mr. Wolf, “It would be unseemly to complain when you’ve got three other shows on the network.” He might have added that reruns of “Law & Order” and its offshoots, all owned by NBC Universal, have at times fed three of NBC’s cable channels — USA, Bravo and even Sci Fi — as well as TNT, all of which have combined to make Mr. Wolf very wealthy.
And yet, in an interview last month, he could not resist nipping at the hand that rewards him so handsomely. “Did you see the N.H.L. numbers?” he asked in reference to the ratings for the National Hockey League finals on NBC on a recent night. “Do you know what NBC did at 8 o’clock?” he asked. “A one” — meaning one ratings point, or about 1.3 million viewers between 18 and 49.
Similarly, he said the losses experienced by the original “Law & Order” and “Criminal Intent” were at least partly attributable to the weak lead-ins they received from NBC’s anemic prime-time schedule, which finished the season ranked fourth among the four major broadcast networks for the second year in a row, after a decade at No. 1. (And “Criminal Intent” had to compete not only with “Desperate Housewives” but also with “The Sopranos” for part of the year.)
For all the tinkering he has been doing this summer, Mr. Wolf knows that the fate of his franchise may ultimately be out of his hands, determined instead by the performance of the network’s new slate of fall shows, including a comedy from Tina Fey called “30 Rock” and a drama from Aaron Sorkin called “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
“As soon as they get a couple of hits, there will be more promo time,” he said, meaning that spots on the new shows could be used to help boost the old. “I hope it works.”
“You have to understand,” he added, “I am the biggest rooter for anything that ends up working on the network.”