Television producer Dick Wolf builds a new empire in Chicago
PASADENA, CALIF. >> With all the changes in television over the past few decades, Dick Wolf has remained resilient and is now resurgent.
A few years ago, the producer behind the "Law & Order" empire at NBC saw his three prime-time shows cut back to one, and was stung when the original series was canceled just shy of setting a record for the longest-running scripted prime-time show. He settled for a tie.
Now, Wolf makes the "Chicago" trilogy of dramas for NBC and is talking about a fourth. "Chicago Fire" started four years ago and averages 10 million viewers a week. "Chicago P.D." is in its third season and was joined in November by "Chicago Med." "Law & Order: SVU" is still breathing, too.
"In this day and age, we're just trying to build something bigger than one show in the middle of hundreds of other shows, and I think now we have sort of a 'Chicago' zeitgeist," said Bob Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment president. "I think it's innovative and fresh, and we're just seeing more build as the weeks go on with these shows."
Besides, he quipped, "we're getting good kickbacks from (Chicago Mayor) Rahm Emanuel."
"Chicago Med" was the only new fall program to get higher ratings for subsequent episodes than it did for its premiere, Greenblatt said.
The ripped-from-the-headlines dramas are more dependable than sexy, and they provide plenty of cross-pollination opportunities for NBC. "Med" and "Fire" run back-to-back on NBC's Tuesday schedule, with "P.D." airing on Wednesdays.
"We don't build Ferraris, we build Mercedes S-Class sedans," Wolf said. "What we do is Thanksgiving dinner every week: it's turkey, it's mashed potatoes, green beans with really good gravy."
February will have a crossover story that involves all of the series, with characters from each show appearing within the others.
Those special promotions are a delicate balance for producers and NBC executives. Obviously, the crossover drives attention and compels viewers to watch the different series. But, noted NBC entertainment executive Jennifer Salke, there are risks in overdoing it. Not all "Chicago Fire" viewers, for example, watch the others — not even a majority. One reason procedurals are attractive is because each episode tells a complete story, and that's not a formula to be messed with too much.
Small integrations, like when an officer from "Chicago P.D." appears in "Fire" just to illustrate the programs are operating in the same fictional world, are something to be watched for as well, Wolf said.
Given the success of the three series, it would be silly for Wolf and NBC not to be "sort of mutually kicking the tires" on a potential fourth series, the producer said. Can you say "Chicago Law"?
"Would I like to do it?" Wolf said. "Of course. I mean, you talk about your dreams being fulfilled. This is literally a dream come true. To have these three shows operating this synergistically is beyond my expectations. My instinct is always to double down, but there are many masters to serve and a lot of people have to agree, as always."
Not all of Wolf's dreams come true. He said he's been trying to sell a series called "School" that would start on the first day of kindergarten and follow the same group of children through the end of high school. Over 25 years, something like nine networks have turned him down, he said.
Still, he's not in a position to complain.
He's even in a position to gloat, or say "I told you so" to the network that almost put him out to pasture, but he resists.
"You have to tiptoe past the graveyard," he said.
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