Inside NBC’s Triple Play From the Second City

Dick Wolf’s Chicago dramas form foundation for network’s schedule
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Chicago is NBC’s kind of town.

Just before Halloween, Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, hosted a dinner at the renowned steakhouse Chicago Cut for the casts and crews of Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med. She’ll be there again when Chicago P.D. marks its 100th episode.

“We would develop a show and set it in Chicago even if it wasn’t set in Chicago,” Salke said. “We’ve really enjoyed producing shows in Chicago and we have a great relationship with the city that has been built over the course of all these shows. So we love Chicago.”

The shows, from Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf, have not only helped NBC rebuild its primetime lineup but have created a hub for TV production in the Windy City, thanks in part to a deep talent pool and tax credits from the state of Illinois. The same studio complex that houses NBC’s Chicago shows — Cinespace — also hosts Fox’s hit Empire, The Exorcist and a number of other series.

This season, Chicago Fire is a top 20 show and NBC’s second-highest rated drama with a 2.2 among adults 18-49. Chicago P.D. is drawing a 1.9 rating this season.

Chicago Med premiered last month with a 1.3 overnight rating, up from last season’s finale.

NBC’s Chicago shows generated close to $235 million in ad revenue, according to research company Standard Media Index.

New episodes of Chicago Fire brought in $71 million in revenue with 30-second spots selling for an average about $129,200. Chicago P.D. drew $57 million in ad sales at $115,900 a spot, and Chicago Med racked up $56 million at $108,700 per spot. Before it was cancelled, Chicago Justice contributed $28 million in ad sales with 30-second spots at $102,700.

Because they’re not produced on the coasts, but in the heartland, NBC’s Chicago shows sometimes get overlooked.

To get them some additional publicity, the network hosted an NBC One Chicago Day in October, a junket for journalists with a red carpet for cameras and interviews with the stars at the new Lagunitas Brewery next door to Cinespace. (Having a brewery so close to the studio gave producers mixed emotions. But some scenes have already been shot there.) The network also arranged visits to soundstages decorated with fire trucks, police cars and ambulances and threw a big party.

‘Fire’ Starter

The first of the shows, Chicago Fire, launched just after Comcast acquired NBCU and installed a new entertainment team at the network, headed by Salke and entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt.

“We didn’t have much of a schedule to work with and Law & Order: SVU was one of the most important shows on our schedule,” Salke recalled. “It had a steady, incredibly loyal audience and fan base, so it was a great place to look to Dick Wolf and his enterprise to start building a foundation for us.”

Salke remembered a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel with Wolf and his team to discuss what they wanted to do next.

Known for closed-ended procedural dramas, Wolf said he couldn’t ignore that people were flocking to character-driven shows that had more serialized elements.

“He really wanted to strike a balance between both with Chicago Fire, and I think he really did,” Salke said. “I think it was a deliberate setting out to kind of evolve the procedural storytelling a bit and allow for more investment in characters and their personal story lines.”

Chicago Fire launched in 2012 and fans of Dick Wolf’s brand of television helped make it a hit, according to Salke. Many fans followed as it spawned Chicago P.D. in 2014 and Chicago Med in 2015. A fourth show, Chicago Justice, was cancelled after one season in 2016-17.

Having a bunch of interconnected Chicago shows wasn’t the original plan, said Chicago Fire creator Derek Haas.

“We had a couple of police characters on Chicago Fire and Dick Wolf just said, ‘These two worlds naturally go together. What if we expanded?’ ” said Haas, an executive producer on all the shows and showrunner for Chicago Fire now.

“I never would have thought we could spin a show out of a first-season show. That was 100% [Wolf] saying ‘this is a universe.’ He always called it like London, with characters going in and out of other shows.

“And then we were always going to this hospital in season one on Chicago Fire. We called it Northside in the first year, but Dick said we should start calling it ‘Chicago Med.’ And then that spun out.”

All for One and One for All

While each show is a production on its own, having the three in one location does create economies, Haas said.

“Casts from all three shows show up as guest cast on the other shows. We have the same stages we all go to,” he said. “But we have to treat them like three separate productions or else it would drive everyone crazy if it was one big production cost.”

Chicago has a deep pool of actors to draw from, particularly for guest roles. Many of the Chicago Fire stars are either from the area or have local roots, including Christian Stolte, Joe Minoso, Yuri Sardarov and David Eigenberg.

When it comes to guest roles, “I would say 90% come from Chicago. We have a casting director here — Claire Simon. I feel like we’ve raided all of the Chicago theater at this point,” Haas said. One actor played a dad in season one of Chicago Fire and then played a perp in season four of Chicago P.D.

“There’s a great depth pool here, but we do see a lot of the same faces over and over now that we’ve been six years in,” Haas added.

The Chicago shows operate out of studios at the Cinespace complex on Chicago’s South Side. It works with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Film Office and local officials when it shoots on locations in neighborhoods.

“When we were shooting the pilot, we met with Rahm originally and he basically said, ‘We love production here, we want to grow that part of Chicago, so any way we can help, let us know,’ ” Haas said. “And they really have rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Chicago citizens have embraced the shows as well.

“One time in season one, I was standing outside with Joe Minoso, who plays Joe Cruz [on Chicago Fire],” Haas recalled. “We had just done this story line where Joe’s character abandoned a gang-banger in a burning warehouse to kill a guy who had been after his brother.

“And so we’re standing outside. It’s cold. And this school bus pulls up and the door opens and the bus driver goes, ‘We’re with you, Cruz.’ That doesn’t happen in L.A.,” Haas said.

Eriq La Salle, who gained fame on E.R., which was produced in Los Angeles but set in Chicago, is directing episodes of the NBC Chicago shows.

“We want Chicago to be a character, to feel its presence,” La Salle said. “It just gives the storytelling texture.”

He added: “From the creative point of view, it’s great to have three shows. When somebody gets wounded we’ve got medical sets to use. And it’s easier and more accessible and cheaper.”

Rick Eid, executive producer of Chicago P.D., said different Chicago areas provide the show with different flavors.

“It’s not only a visual thing, it’s also there’s a cultural aspect to the different neighborhoods and we try to speak to that as well and the different issues going on here in Chicago, whether it’s racial tension or immigration,” Eid said. “There’s a lot of things happening and we try to speak to them.”

Haas added that the NBC shows have been embraced by the community, including restaurants, such as Gibsons RPM. “They love it when any of the cast comes in, and I think it helps with Chicago tourism, quite frankly,” he said. “Now they have these tours and people can see locations where we’ve shot scenes.”

Chicago Fire’s Eigenberg, who grew up in Naperville, a Chicago suburb, says he tells colleagues the city is a great place to work.

“Actors, we’re just tramps and whores and gypsies, so we just go where the work is. Chicago’s a great place to land,” Eigenberg said. “There are other cities in America that I would prefer not to work in. I’m not going to say those names.”

Chicago is NBC’s kind of town.

Just before Halloween, Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, hosted a dinner at the renowned steakhouse Chicago Cut for the casts and crews of Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med. She’ll be there again when Chicago P.D. marks its 100th episode.

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