With six series on air, veteran writer and producer Dick Wolf talks to DQ about the changing television industry and reveals why he would tell aspiring producers to go into a different line of work.
For someone who currently has six series on air, Dick Wolf is remarkably modest. With a screen career spanning four decades, the esteemed writer and producer created the long-running Law & Order series and has had a hand in developing the ever-expanding Chicago franchise. He has also won numerous awards, including an Emmy, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Yet Wolf describes himself as “the luckiest guy in the lower 48 states of the US,” believing his success has been as much about good fortune and timing as his continued backing of evergreen network procedurals at a time when streaming platforms and serialised storytelling are hogging the limelight.
“My timing was very fortunate. I got the best of it,” he says, speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “It sounds terrible, but the crumbs are left. They don’t want anybody to make money but them, which is understandable but not invigorating.”
Wolf is referring to the on-demand giants that are busy signing up some of the biggest and brightest talents in television. Netflix has snared Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), while Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld), Lena Waithe (The Chi) and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) have moved in with Amazon Prime Video. But though these overall deals pay big up front, there’s little reward further down the line.
That doesn’t sit easily with Wolf, who has been rewarded over the years for the longevity of his series and their repeatability in US syndication and overseas.
“My advice [to a young producer] would be, ‘Do you have anything else you want to do?’ This business is essentially over in terms of people being able to come in, make a hit show and make a lot of money,” he says. “The streaming services want to know exactly how much [a show] is going to cost forever. So far, the deals are pretty uninteresting. So to give people advice, I’d tell them that to go and do something where there is a concrete ceiling, rather than a glass ceiling, is difficult now.”
Not tempted to move online, where a season of a network show that clocks in at between 22-25 episodes a year could mark the lifespan of a single series on Netflix or Amazon, Wolf is doubling down on his commitment to network drama.
Heading into its 21st season, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) is now the longest-running live-action series in the history of US TV, while Wolf’s other series on air include Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med, plus FBI (pictured top) and its new spin-off FBI: Most Wanted. He is also hopeful a reboot of his 1990s crime drama New York Undercover will get picked up this year.
Wolf says there’s no secret formula behind his work, noting that Law & Order was taken from the headlines while FBI is much more “ripped from the zeitgeist.” The series – which centres on the unique work undertaken by the agency’s New York field office and returns to CBS for its second season this month – comes from Universal Television in association with CBS Television Studios and is distributed by CBS Studios International.
“It’s about what’s going on in the world, rather than a specific case. That’s the biggest difference between them,” Wolf continues. “Law & Order truly was ripped from the headlines. When I sold it to NBC, [then network president] Brandon Tartikoff said, ‘What’s the pitch?’ I said, ‘The front page of the New York Post.’”
Whatever his method, viewers certainly approve. “The numbers are ludicrous,” he says of the viewing figures his shows attract. “SVU, off network, draws 93 million people on the various reruns, and the reason to me is pretty apparent: closed-ended stories. We have serialised elements but the secret of the success we’ve had is audiences know you can tune in and get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end and know the bad guy is probably going to get caught. It’s going to be emotionally satisfying.”
Strong writing has also been key, Wolf notes. “It’s always the writing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got Laurence Olivier [in the cast]. If the words aren’t good, the show isn’t going to work. It really is the overwhelming element of success.”
Another reason Wolf’s shows work so well are the ensemble casts that lead them – and the opportunity to continually refresh them by introducing new characters.
“Law & Order was a six-person ensemble and, for the 20 years it was on, there were 29 actors who were regulars,” he says. “On SVU, the only one who was in the original cast that’s still there is Mariska [Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson]. So I usually see recasting as an opportunity, not a burden. But it’s never easy. People aren’t thrilled by the news [they’re being written out].”
Speaking to Wolf, it’s apparent that he plans to be in the TV business for many more years, if only to clear his head. “There are so many shows bouncing around in there,” he adds. “There could be a third FBI show that is totally different, and bringing back New York Undercover is going to be a lot of fun. I only do things I like watching.”