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Crime pays for ‘Law & Order’s’ Dick Wolf

Creator still takes umbrage that network cancelled ‘Trial By Jury’
/ Source: The Associated Press

It goes without saying that TV mogul Dick Wolf is big.

The “Law & Order” empire he built (including “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which airs Sundays; “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Tuesdays; and their progenitor, in its 16th season, on Wednesdays) is also big. Just ask NBC, which reportedly logs as much as $1 billion in annual ad sales from “Law & Order” programming, and counts “Special Victims Unit” its highest-rated show.

(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

But that’s not all. “Conviction,” Wolf’s drama about assistant district attorneys, is scheduled to premiere on NBC in midseason. And a series he’s developing for NBC next season would chronicle the impact of a sensational murder trial as it overtakes a small town.

Wolf has lots going on. Even so, he still feels the pain from NBC axing “Law & Order: Trial By Jury” just weeks after its premiere last March.

“Extraordinarily upsetting,” he says.

Was he really blindsided?

“More than blindsided. I had been told multiple times, ‘Yeah, the show’s coming back. What’re you worried about?”’

But when NBC’s fall schedule was unveiled last May, “Trial By Jury” was nowhere to be found. The network had dumped it for “Inconceivable,” an aptly titled melodrama about a fertility clinic. “Inconceivable” vanished after just two airings.

What then? What else: reruns of “Criminal Intent” are filling that Friday gap, at least through November sweeps.

Network still needs WolfSo much for NBC’s latest stab at reducing its dependence on “Law & Order” backups, which are routinely plugged into the network’s leaky schedule like fingers in a dike. (One notable week last season, one or another “Law & Order” series aired during 12 of NBC’s 22 prime-time hours.)

This may account for why Wolf (at 58 a veteran producer who has weathered his share of flops) takes umbrage at how the network discarded “Trial By Jury” after long benefiting from its three predecessors.

What did canceling “Trial By Jury” really say about NBC’s faith in the “Law & Order” brand?

“It was more a statement about the network and our mandate to move forward,” declares NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who cites the network’s prime-time plunge from first to fourth place last season as “a very clear sign in the ratings that it was time to move on.”

“Trial By Jury” wasn’t a breakout hit, and the network opted not to wait for it to catch on.

Asked the prospect for future “Law & Order” spinoffs, Reilly says, “We have no plans at the moment.”

But he hastens to point out: “We clearly jumped back into business with Dick.”

Young, hip assistant district attorneysWith just a pilot script in hand, NBC has ordered 13 episodes of “Conviction,” which Wolf created after finding this statistic: Among the hundreds of prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the average age is 28. This translates into young, inexperienced and attractive go-getters who are pushed to the limit. Casting is under way.

A crime-and-courts sort of drama ripped from the headlines, “Conviction” need add only a few location title cards, “cha-chung” sound effects, and yet another variation on Mike Post’s theme to qualify as “Law & Order: Conviction.” (It will even occupy the elaborate courtroom-and-offices set vacated by “Trial By Jury” at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens.)

But it won’t be wearing that “Law & Order” mantle.

“It’s a very high-octane show with a pace that we’ve never seen in the ‘Law & Order’ shows before — very kinetic, and very young,” Reilly promises. “I don’t want any assumptions (by the viewer) that it needed to adhere to the ‘Law & Order’ conventions.”

Wolf, who sizes up this strategy with a “no comment,” might prefer to have “Conviction” in the “Law & Order” fold.

After all, brand familiarity might boost viewer sampling. Besides, “Conviction” could then join the parallel world all “Law & Order” series share — where stories and characters are free to intermingle, and where crossover episodes come naturally.

“I’m certainly not gonna say that there should never be another show with ‘Law & Order’ in the title,” says Wolf.

Network is mightier than the producerBut no matter how big he is, the network is bigger.

“They have the power to put a show on and take it off,” he says matter-of-factly. “Producers can cajole, scream, threaten. It doesn’t do any good. The networks will do what they perceive is in their best interest, not mine.

“But we’re partners,” he adds. “It’s their asset, too.” That is, his series are produced in association with NBC Universal Television Studio, a division of NBC Universal, which profits not only from the first-run telecasts, but from syndication, too: old “Law & Order” episodes on TNT; “Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent” reruns on USA. Even “Trial By Jury” will be recycled by Court TV starting in December.

And the rerun pool is only getting deeper for the “Law & Order” trio.

“I don’t think the franchise has a wear-out factor. There are gonna be great stories forever,” Wolf says. “My only mantra is: Keep the brand healthy.”

Now the question on his mind might be: Is NBC listening?