There isn’t much to celebrate on broadcast TV these days, with one-time ratings magnets such as the Oscars drawing a fraction of the crowd they used to. Dick Wolf dramas, on the other hand, continue to win over sizable audiences. Wolf, the brain behind the multiple-show Law & Order, Chicago and FBI brands, has for decades delivered compelling storytelling, with just the right mix of character development and plot, to keep viewers tuning in.
Current Wolf series have more than 1,000 episodes on the air. The shows have forever shone a spotlight on law enforcement and how cops corral the bad guys. George Floyd’s death a year ago, and with Black Lives Matter taking off after that, has compelled many Americans to rethink the way they view police.
Wolf Entertainment has done its own soul-searching. An abundance of panel discussions, discussions in the writers’ rooms, consultants and loads of research have pushed the Wolf team to fully grasp all sides of this vital issue. “The people inside the company, the showrunners, the producers, we spend a lot of time talking about police behavior, probably more time than any other non-law enforcement group of people in the country, because it’s what we do every day,” Wolf said at a press event for Law & Order: Organized Crime. “We’re doing what we always do, which is listen very carefully and read virtually everything written about this, from both sides of the spectrum.”
Rick Eid, executive producer and showrunner on Chicago P.D. and FBI, told B+C/Multichannel News the series “try to be honest to the moment and the time. Obviously police reform is a really important issue right now that we are taking very seriously.”
Wolf promised his cop dramas will reflect modern America in a thoughtful manner. “The shows will speak for themselves,” he said.
There are many of them. Tuesdays on CBS, season three of FBI is on at 9 p.m. and season two of FBI: Most Wanted is on at 10. On Wednesdays, NBC has season six of Chicago Med at 8 p.m., season nine of Chicago Fire at 9 p.m. and season eight of Chicago P.D. at 10.
Law & Order: SVU is in season 22 on NBC (the network signed on for three more seasons last year) and Law & Order: Organized Crime premiered to boffo ratings April 1, with viewers keen to see the reunion of Detectives Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (played by Christopher Meloni), longtime partners on SVU until Meloni departed in 2011.
On May 14, NBC shared its 2021-2022 schedule, which sees Wolf’s Chicago dramas on Wednesdays and a Law & Order trio on Thursdays.
Detective Stabler gets his closeup on Organized Crime after his wife is murdered. “This is a show that will spend time with Stabler and his family and his life and his emotions,” said Ilene Chaiken, Organized Crime executive producer and showrunner, at the press event. “We tell stories. We tell procedural stories. The DNA of the Law & Order franchise or SVU is very much in our show, but we probably will get to know Stabler in a way you’ve never gotten to know him.”
Wolf Entertainment is more than scripted stuff. Unscripted series, under the management of Tom Thayer, include Murder for Hire on Oxygen, as well as projects on the air and in development at A&E and Peacock, among other networks.
The scripted programs have such a dedicated viewer base that one night in mid April, NBC got second place in the overnight ratings with its three Chicago shows — despite them being in repeats. Whether they’re first runs or reruns, contemporary story lines and a deep bench of talent give the Wolf shows a unique sheen. Media consultant Bill Carroll mentioned “an unbelievable bench of stage actors playing guest characters that give a certain depth to the shows.”
“It feels very contemporary, there’s a strong following for the main characters, and the quality of acting — it all adds up to a positive,” Carroll added.
Yes, WE Can
Asked about the success of his shows, Wolf shared a message he passed along to network executives. “Years ago, at Christmastime, I sent plaques to all the network heads,” said Wolf. “They said, ‘It’s the writing, stupid.’ ”
Those who know him well said Wolf has a unique knack for finding talent, whether it’s in the writers’ room, cast or production wing, and giving them the space to do their thing. The Wolf series work because of a crystal clear vision from the boss and boots on the ground with the skill, experience and discipline to execute on that vision.
“Everybody has a voice,” said Peter Jankowski, Wolf Entertainment chief operating officer and executive producer on the Law & Order, FBI and Chicago brands.
Eid noted Wolf’s “amazing eye” for talent. “His vision is what we all try to follow,” said Eid. “It’s a very specific vision, not only for the show, but ultimately for the entire franchise.”
In 2019, Wolf Films rebranded to Wolf Entertainment. More recently, team members began referring to the team as WE. It’s an abbreviation, but it also sums up the Wolf Entertainment mindset. True teamwork “sets us apart from other television production companies,” said Jankowski.
A foreboding mantra guides the WE team. “Work like you can be canceled tomorrow,” Jankowski shared. “That’s what happens in television.”
The common ground between the Wolf series is pretty simple, according to Eid: intriguing storytelling. “That’s what we strive for each and every episode — credible, grounded, honest storytelling,” Eid said. “Every department shares their excellence on every episode. The aggregate effect of that energy and effort, and having the right people in place, creates shows that are differentiated from other shows.”
Wolf has long had an overall deal with Universal Television. Universal president Erin Underhill said the Wolf camp goes about its business in a unique manner. “Wolf Entertainment is really smart about how they approach production and post,” she said. “They’ve built an incredible system that protects each aspect of filmmaking and they use their resources wisely.”
The team has had to be particularly wise to shoot amidst the pandemic. They shot one fewer episode of Organized Crime due to COVID challenges, Wolf noted, “but that hasn’t affected the storytelling at all.”
Janikowski mentioned the “uncomfortable environment” actors and producers have experienced over the past year, masking up and staying apart. “Everyone’s muscles have had to be reprogrammed,” he said.
With so many shows, it’s a lot of muscles to reprogram. But the Wolf series all came together, as they always have.
The Wolf Entertainment rebrand saw a renewed focus on digital, including a social media push and podcasting, such as The Law and Order: SVU Podcast and scripted series Hunted.
Wolf’s son Elliot heads up the digital team. “It’s been amazing to see the response from fans while building the Wolf Entertainment community,” said Elliot, executive VP of digital. “When it comes to digital, we want to be at the tip of the spear in terms of innovation. All of our efforts are geared towards creating a stronger connection with fans of our shows and expanding the ways in which we tell stories.”
Hargitay and Meloni were the guests on the SVU podcast in late March, just before their characters reconnected. Hargitay spoke about the benefits of sharing a long, intense history with Meloni on set. “One of the biggest gifts, for me, is this innate knowing that Chris and I can navigate any scene to where it needs to be,” she said. “We sort of know, better than anyone, really, what the scene is because of our history. And that’s exciting because, if we read something and it’s not quite right or it’s more of a rough draft and it has beautiful shape but it’s not quite nuanced as we want it to be, or not exactly right emotionally, we can get there.”
On May 3, NBC announced a straight-to-series order on Law & Order: For the Defense, a look at a criminal defense firm. “We spent the last 30 years on shows that played offense,” Wolf said at the time. “Now it will be great to play defense.”
Speaking before the announcement, Underhill said there is always demand for another Wolf series or two. “Knowing Dick’s ambitions, I’m sure there are more great shows percolating in his head,” she said. “He has a knack for knowing what people want to see.”
Jankowski sounded a similar note before For the Defense was divulged. “With Dick Wolf, there is always room for another show,” he said.
Major producers, including Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, have shifted to Netflix after a string of hits on traditional TV. Wolf has a project in development at Netflix, details of which his camp would not share. But Wolf Entertainment digs broadcast and the relatively hefty audiences a well-made show can gather, Jankowski said, and for the large number of episodes they get to produce.
“As storytellers and producers, we don’t care what platform it is,” Eid said. “We’re just trying to make something that’s engaging and honest and entertaining.”
The FBI brand has taken off since its 2018 launch. Star Missy Peregrym called her Maggie character “an everyday superhero” who wins over viewers with her peculiar mix of vulnerability, empathy and toughness.
Three consecutive episodes of FBI: Most Wanted drew more than 6 million viewers apiece in March and April.
FBI: International is scheduled to debut next season. It will follow the elite agents of the FBI’s international division as they traverse the world to protect Americans. Derek Haas will be showrunner. “FBI is the fastest-growing brand on television and our partner Dick Wolf has found yet another creative way to expand its universe,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS Entertainment president, when the series was announced in March.
Before its premiere, Wolf said Organized Crime would get way inside Elliot Stabler’s head. “These villains are going to be really bad guys, and they’ll give Chris [Meloni] a constant source of energy, outrage and belief in justice,” said Wolf, “and a different way of pursuing criminals than we had before.”
Stabler has always been tantalizingly close to snapping, and the murder of his wife has brought him that much closer. “Injustice makes his head explode,” Meloni said. “This is Elliot 2.0, and hopefully his evolution has a clear understanding that the world is unjust. How you adapt to realities that keep punching you in the face.”
Organized Crime got off to a blazing start April 1. That night’s Law & Order: SVU episode scored a 4.3 rating in viewers 18-49, and 17.1 million total viewers. The Organized Crime premiere did a 4.7 in 18-49, and 18.1 million have watched. Such ratings are rare on broadcast anymore.
Wolf told B+C he was “pleasantly surprised” by the crossover’s performance. “Obviously the two-hour premiere was a truly special event,” he said, “with Mariska and Chris getting back together.”
The second season has 24 episodes planned. Wolf mentioned three eight-episode arcs for Organized Crime: One fashioned after The Godfather, one after American Gangster and one after Scarface.
The Wolf shows have long been described as being ripped from the headlines, but Wolf suggested there’s more context to it. “We take the headline but not the body copy,” he said.
Whether it’s Chicago, FBI, Law & Order or a new brand, Wolf Entertainment shows have a knack for hooking viewers a moment or two after an episode begins, and holding them across the hour — week after week, season after season. “The audience looks forward to going on an emotional journey each week and they come because the shows deliver,” said Underhill. “Dick is smart about infusing new life into his shows with compelling new characters, topical issues and dynamic guest stars.”
Jankowski said Wolf understands television every bit as well as the network execs he deals with, including what keeps viewers watching at, say, Wednesdays at 8 in an increasingly on-demand world. “He has his eye on the horizon all the time,” Jankowski said. “He has such a strategic mind. There’s no producer in television like him.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.