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The Wolf Pack
He revolutionized TV drama with 'Law & Order,' but recently megaproducer Dick Wolf has been a little less mega. He's back with a new formula and a new 'Conviction.'
Photos (from left): Paul Drinkwater / NBC; Chris Haston / NBC; NBC; Mitch Haaseth / NBC
Law & Order
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Feb. 20, 2006 issue - Everyone knows that the TV industry is one big recycling center—full of reruns, knockoffs and an endlessly revolving cast of actors—but Dick Wolf takes it more literally than most. Last year he created the fourth installment in his "Law & Order" empire, "Trial by Jury." It lasted all of 12 episodes. "I was stunned," he says. "I had been told, 'Everyone loves it! It's coming back.' Then, the night before they announced the fall schedule—canceled. It still p---es me off." Most producers would erase the whole ugly experience from their minds, not to mention their resumes. Not Wolf, the most successful repackager in TV history. When he pitched his next crime show, about assistant district attorneys in Manhattan, he suggested using the old sets from "Trial by Jury." "It was a unique opportunity," says Wolf. "If I come and say I've got an idea, they'll listen fairly carefully, but they'll especially listen when I've already got the sets to put the show in."
As it happens, "Conviction" has inherited not just sets but the very same time slot that "Trial by Jury" failed in last spring. Despite its secondhand real estate, however, "Conviction" is the most original show Wolf has created in years. It's still a crime drama, of course. But unlike the "Law & Order" franchise, "Conviction," which debuts March 3 on NBC, actually cares about developing its characters as much as their caseloads. There's also a fair amount of humor and sex, not to mention actors young enough to be Sam Waterston's grandchildren. One of the reasons NBC canceled "Trial by Jury" was that it—God forbid—attracted an older audience. No one in the cast of "Conviction" is older than 34. "I only have to get kicked in the head 18 times until I go 'Oh'," Wolf says.
It's nice to see that Wolf, 59, is willing to tinker with a formula that generates more than $1 billion in ad revenues every year. But he's not just changing for change's sake. The last few years have been tough on his empire. "Dragnet," the show he created just before "Trial by Jury," also failed. (In fact, it failed twice—ABC let Wolf try to revamp it, unsuccessfully.) The "Law & Order" shows aren't the unassailable behemoths they once were, either. Two years ago all three versions were in the top 20. Now "Special Victims Unit" is the highest rated at No. 13, though, to be fair, nothing on NBC is exactly hot. Still, in the era of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," procedural shows aren't as sexy as they were when "Law & Order" revolutionized TV drama. Wolf knows he's got to adapt. "You know what the four stages of success in Hollywood are?" he says, reprising an old industry joke. " 'Who's Dick Wolf? Get me Dick Wolf! Get me the next Dick Wolf! Who's Dick Wolf?' I'm just trying to stay away from the fourth one."
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