Hungry Like a Wolf

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Dick Wolf, the outspoken executive producer behind the long-running Law & Order franchise, will be at the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference in Las Vegas Jan. 15-18 to promote the fall 2007 off-network broadcast strip debut of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Since Law & Order debuted in 1990, it has spawned two hugely successful spinoffs: L&O: Special Victims Unit in 1999 and, two years later, Criminal Intent. There was one strikeout, the short-lived Law & Order: Trial by Jury, in 2005.

This will mark Wolf's second time in the syndication sales booth, after a stint seven years ago for the short-lived first-run offering Arrest & Trial.

NBC Universal surprised the industry in October by rolling out a Monday-Friday strip version of CI to broadcast, starting with the Fox O&Os, and announcing that stations would share the window with the NBCU-owned USA Network. It is now cleared in more than 75% of the country.

In a conversation with B&C's Jim Benson, Wolf, who has also been busy creating localized international editions of the procedural crime franchise, discusses why syndication frightens him, his views about one overall television universe, and life on a last-place network.

What was your initial reaction when you heard that NBCU wanted to syndicate Criminal Intent as a daily, all-barter broadcast strip?

The one-word answer was: interesting. Why? This is something that hasn't been done in 12, 14 years by my memory, before the entire TV landscape changed.

I embrace anything that increases revenue for the brand, and this is a revenue stream untapped by hour shows. Frankly, I think it should work very well.

Your brand will be even more ubiquitous now. Is that a problem?

I don't believe that is a bad thing or that familiarity breeds contempt. This is a triumph of storytelling over serialized dramas.

Do you have any concerns about it?

I want this to have the best launch possible so that it becomes a staple. The scariest aspect of syndication is that the first year is a bitch.

But if it works, it will last forever, especially with the number of episodes [produced].

We'll literally have an annuity for years. I had dipped a toe into the syndication market with Arrest & Trial. It is kind of like a land war in Asia. But [CI] will be on excellent stations and … in the right time slots.

Broadcasters have shunned drama strips for a long time, leaving them for cable. Do you think that they will work there now?

Absolutely. I'm not being Pollyannaish; this brand has a history of working on cable networks. It goes to a long-held theory of mine that we're well down the road to a one-box universe. It is all TV, and consumers don't care what platform it is on.

As much as we like to pretend how many viewers are still watching with rabbit ears, it is not a free medium any more. These subtle but distinct business differences are going to disappear.

But as a profit participant, can you make as much from an all-barter broadcast deal like this as you could from an all-cash deal to cable?

Knock wood. Various station groups are learning that they can make lots money in the future from this franchise. This is a big brand, and it will appear in time slots that will get viewers hooked. That appeals to me.

Are you happy overall with the way NBC has treated your franchise, particularly with lower ratings and the move of mothership L&O to Friday nights?

Intermittently [laughs].

To keep myself from getting into trouble, I'll refer to my previous quotes [about this being like] a long-term Catholic marriage. There are days when I'm happy and unhappy.

I'm probably one of the only producers who are happy having a 2.5 rating for a lead-in, which came out of a 0.9 lead-in.

But in the span of the last 20 years, I've had many more good days than bad.

What I'm most pleased about is that the storytelling remains strong. There has been a continuous appetite for this brand on- and off-network, and the move into [broadcast strip] syndication is very exciting.