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Catching Up With Dick Wolf

Chicago FireGrowing up watching TV variety shows, I often wondered how the jugglers could keep so many balls in the air at one time. Today I wonder the same thing about my friend Dick Wolf who has nine, hour long dramas on the air every week. No other writer/producer in the history of television has ever come close to that feat. In addition to “Law and Order”, Wolf produces “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”,  “Law and Order Organized Crime”, “Chicago Fire”, “Chicago PD”, “Chicago Med”, “FBI”, “FBI Most Wanted”, and “FBI International”. Perhaps even more impressive is that in this era of the 500-channel universe and a myriad of streaming services, all nine of Wolf’s dramas air on a broadcast network, and all nine are commercially successful.
I first met Dick in the spring of 1999 at an event for the Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center) in New York City. A few months later I interviewed him at length for volume one of my “TV Creators” book series. Back then we talked about our shared love of old TV westerns and heroes like Hopalong Cassidy. Dick also recounted how he spent his summer breaks from the University of Pennsylvania working at ad agencies, then eventually ended up creating national campaigns for major brands like Crest Toothpaste. “I’ve essentially never earned a dollar that wasn’t somehow writing related,” he told me. And Dick came by his talent honestly. “My grandmother wrote title cards for Paramount in the silent era, and my father was a second-generation screenwriter.”
LAW & ORDEROver the years we kept in touch and traded emails, but nearly a quarter century had passed since we had talked at length about his career. During that time, he had won two EMMYs, a Grammy, was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and became a bestselling author of three crime novels. We reconnected by phone late last month, but our conversation was marked by irony because it took place during a writers’ strike. And so, as I spoke with a legendary wordsmith, not a single word was being written for any of Dick’s nine shows.
Jim:  I remember seeing a survey from years ago that said even in normal times, most actors and writers only make a few thousand dollars a year, because they can’t get work.    
Chicago Fire+ dick wolfDick:  Right, there’s 90% unemployment, and I’ve been saying this for 35 years, “Why can people who cannot qualify for health insurance vote on throwing people out of work?” This strike is incredibly complex. This is the end of May, and it looks like they’re not even going to start talking to the writers again until they close with the actors and directors. So, you’re looking at a very protracted period of labor upset, and it’s a diminishing pool. Everybody wants everybody to be employed for as much money as possible, but unfortunately this is one instance where both sides are getting hurt.
Jim:  Back when you were only producing Law & Order and SVU, you told me that you employed anywhere from 120 to 150 people on each show. Is that still the average today?
LAW & ORDERDick: It’s much more now. I was talking about actors and writers and crew. But when you get into post and scoring, and all the ancillaries that are not direct production costs, it’s closer to 300 people on a show. Right now, I’ve got about 3,000 people out of work.  This is my fourth strike, and nobody remembers 1987. In ’87 I stood up in an Executive Producers meeting and said, “I’ve seen the numbers and we can’t win this strike” because it was over DVRs. I said, “they (the studios) are never going to give us a piece of something that they don’t know the value of, and this strike could go on for three months.” And a bunch of people booed me and somebody in the back of the room shouted, “Sit down you f*cking quizling”. That’s me.(laughs) I just want everybody to stay working. And the strike went on for six months and two weeks. In my opinion, this current strike is going to go on just as long if not longer. And it doesn’t just affect writers and directors and actors. It affects everybody who works on those shows which are all shut down. You talk about innocent bystanders. That’s the way it goes.
Hill Street BluesJim:   I think back to your time at MTM studios as a rookie writer on Hill Street Blues. You described yourself as “a well-paid slave”, and, referred to the experience as a “kind of submersion for 40 weeks a year.” Is it the same for your writers today? Or do they fare comparatively better than you did back in the 1980’s?  
Dick:  At the top of the pyramid the writers are very well paid for those 40 weeks if you’re fortunate enough to be on a network show, but one of the basic problems is that my writers do 22 episodes. Today a big  order is 10 episodes and most of them are eight. So, if you’re a writer and switch from network to another platform, you’re cutting your income by 60% by going from 22 to 8. Today the writers are out marching saying, “we deserve parity”, well, how could you do that with what the streamers are making. NBC Peacock lost $2 billion dollars in 2022 and is probably going to lose $4 billion this year. Paramount Plus is the same. There are ten streamers and in three more years I think there’ll be five if that. It can’t go on, and the chat on the street (from writers) is, “We can’t earn a living, and the streamers are making billions.” No, in fact, most of them are losing billions, but they can’t afford to get out of the game.
Jim:  The first time we spoke you had just started L&O SVU, and I asked you then if you had a sixth sense about which shows will be successful, and you said, “It’s always a crap shoot.” You’re the most successful TV creator in history and you have nine shows on the air right now. Is it still a crap shoot when you start a new show?
Dick: Every time. You never know what the audience is going to react to, but I’ve managed to at least cut down the size of the ranks. You do learn what not to do as much as you learn what to do.
Dick Wolf TV ShowsJim:  Somehow you and your shows have managed to stay relevant for over 40 years. How have you remained relevant to different generations of viewers, and do you ever consciously concern yourself with going after the youth market?
Dick:  I have a strange belief that if you put out good stuff the audience will buy it, and I only do stuff that I want to watch, and there’s not that much on TV that I want to watch that I don’t make. It sounds terrible, but it’s true.  
Jim:  Are you concerned about the trend toward artificial intelligence with regards to crafting stories and scripts?
Dick:  I’m not worried about it because I’m in a unique situation, but if I was a 30-year-old writer I’d be absolutely terrified. I had 26 writers last year who made more than a million dollars each. Those days are probably drawing to a close. At the tip of the iceberg, it was an extraordinarily well-paying job, but it’s not anymore.  Five years from now, machines will be writing Shakespeare. And if you give it better material, it learns how to do it better, so I don’t know what the resolution is.  I think that it should be mutually arrived at and we should not pretend that the genie can be put back in the bottle. It can’t. It’s out, so deal with it, and deal with it as intelligently as possible.
Jim:  You talked about streaming earlier, and everything seems to be going that way, so do traditional network TV dramas have a future?
Dick:   Yeah, I mean mine do.  You look at the numbers, we’re 1, 2 and 3 on Tuesday and Wednesday on two different networks.  Law & Order was building at the second half of the season. SVU is still the most successful show on and off NBC.  As I said, selfishly there’s a future for me, but if anything showed the signs of aging, I would want to replace it, whichever franchise it was in.  
Jim:  Is it still fun for you, or is it more like work?
Dick:  Well, it’s both. The work IS fun. I mean, it’s taken 40 years and not many people say “No” to me anymore (laughs). That’s not a bad position to be in.
Jim:  What’s changed for you over the years?
Dick:  When I got out here, I was always the youngest person in every meeting, and now I’m always the oldest by much more than a decade.
Jim:   You’ve innovated so many things like the split-format drama and streamlined pace. What’s next?
Dick:  We’re working on a half hour drama for Amazon.
Jim:  Just like those old TV westerns that we loved. What’s it going to be called?
Dick:  I’m not supposed to talk about it. Why I don’t know.
Jim:  OK, so, what will be your final innovation?
Dick:  My last innovation will be coming up with a show that can’t be cancelled (both laugh).

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