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Producing Excellence (An Interview with Dick Wolf)
Produced by (The Official Magazine of the Producers Guild of America) Fall 2000
"When it went on the air, the sales department hated it. It was the highest advertising pullout show in the history of NBC. At the early focus groups, people were saying, 'Who are these people? Why should we watch them?'"
You might think the producer would wince at the memory. But the suits and the advertisers and the focus groups were flatly wrong: the show was Law & Order, and Dick Wolf smiles as he tells the story.
Like his shows - Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Arrest & Trial - Dick Wolf conveys an intelligence leavened with wit and clarity. Whether one agrees with his views or not, they are stated clearly and directly. Wolf exudes a passion for good television and for people who know how to craft it. He does not, however, lay any claim to gentility: "As soon as you become complacent, your show gets canceled."
Wolf rejects television that plays to the lowest common denominator. "We don't spoon-feed the audience," he says. Trusting your viewers' intelligence turns out to be a plausible approach: Law & Order has won a record nine consecutive Emmy nominations for Best Drama Series (including a win in 1997), and Wolf can lay claim to an army of loyal viewers and a host of awards that includes the Anti-Defamation League's Distinguished Entertainment Industry Award, The Governor's Award from the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Award of Excellence from the Banff Television Festival, 1997 Achievement Award from the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, and the Leadership and Inspiration Award from the Entertainment Industries Council.
Speaking with Produced by's Ken Ross in Los Angeles, Wolf's arrival and departure were precisely on schedule and his attention to the conversation was undivided.
Let's start with the roots of your creative style. You've said that Arthur Conan Doyle was the first writer who captivated you.
I discovered him when was I was 10.
That's young to be reading Arthur Conan Doyle.
I was an only child growing up in New York and reading was my escape. It was a place I went to very happily. I loved Sherlock Holmes. The books that probably had the biggest effect on me were Hound of the Baskervilles and also Mutiny on the Bounty. The first thing I ever wrote was a serial in my school paper, when I was 12, about a character who was basically an American Sherlock Holmes. It ran for two years, and when I graduated from the eighth grade, I ended it with "To Be Continued." It was the most massive cheat I've ever come up with in my writing. People said, "Wait a minute, he's leaving." [laughs] I didn't have a great ending.
Why did Doyle captivate you?
I think the rigid storytelling, the construction of the facts. I read all the Sherlock Holmes books and realized that they're really not character-driven stories. You're given information about Sherlock Holmes, but the information is procedural: he smoked a pipe, used cocaine, played the violin, had a brother. You could write everything you knew about Sherlock Holmes on one sheet of paper. The story was the thing. In a strange way, Mutiny on the Bounty was similar. Captain Bly was a great antagonist and Fletcher Christian was a great protagonist, but there are not pages of description about them. The story drove the book. That had a very seminal effect on the way I saw writing and storytelling. If you can set a character in a story that is compelling and has a backbone, you draw people in.
So flash forward. You spent some time in advertising.
Seven years.
You're drawn to complex stories, and you come to a very concise medium.
Advertising is the art of the tiny. You have to tell a complete a story and deliver a complete message in a very encapsulated form. It disciplines you to cut away extraneous information.
But your shows challenge people in a way that advertising doesn't.
Because I don't think you can really make television based on what you think audiences want. You can only make stories that you like, because you have to watch it so many times. It has to be edited and scored and everything else, and if you don't like what you're watching it can be a very painful process. I get bored with establishing shots of people getting out of cars and walking into buildings, getting into elevators and then 45 seconds later they have a line. I'd rather be giving information. On Law & Order and SVU you only get the information once. We don't spoon-feed the audience. We don't tell them what they are going to see, then show it to them and then tell them what they saw.
I asked (Executive Vice President, Programming, Studios USA Television) Charlie Engel what frustrates you most about television. He said it's when shows get dumbed-down for what is perceived to be the lowest common denominator.
There's been something of a "told you so" aspect to our experience with Law & Order. Virtually nobody except Brandon Tartikoff and Kerry McCluggage thought the show was going to work. When the first six episodes came in, people at NBC said "No, no, no, no, no. You can't do this and you can't do that." Luckily, there were these two 500-lb gorillas standing there saying, "Let it alone!" When it went on, the sales department hated it. It was the highest advertising pullout show in the history of NBC but Brandon left it on the air because he thought it was a good show. If it came on now, I don't think it would go past six episodes because there's none of that comfort zone. At the early focus groups on Law & Order people were saying, "Who are those people? Why should we watch them? Were those detectives in the guest cast? How come they disappeared in the back half of the show?" People didn't get it at all. It was like in Samoa when they'd put up a movie screen on the beach and show movies and the locals would run behind the sheet to see where the people went. It was pretty grim.
People who work with you describe you as "direct." Not rude, but definitely blunt. That doesn't quite fit the stereotype of a producer as either bombastic and rude or smooth and political.
I think most people don't react well to being screamed at. It's counterproductive. One rule everybody has learned at our company is, you're allowed to scream up but you can't scream down. Scream at me, scream at (Wolf Films President) Peter Jankowski. If you're an editor, scream at (Wolf Films Vice President and Head of Post) Arthur Forney. But don't scream at your assistant. I try to just communicate what I want done as clearly and simply as possible. To quote General Patton, "I don't like paying for the same real estate twice." If it's not done, you say, "This is not what we agreed on." I was raised not to be rude, but I also try to get the best work out of people.
What's your best skill as producer?
I hire obsessive people, people who literally work 60 to 70 hours a week for months on end and who have fine-tuned detectors for what's good and what's bad. A lot of them have been there for more than a decade. Robert Palm and I have been working together since Miami Vice 14 years ago. He was the executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in its first season and now runs Deadline. Rene Balcer, who started out as a staff writer on Law & Order, ended up as the show's executive producer and show runner, and will run Law & Order: Criminal Intent next year. Arthur Forney has been working with me almost continually for 12 years. I've been working with Peter Jankowski every day for 12 or 13 years. Charlie Engel has been at Universal longer than I have. And I hope someday we will all get to retire from Law & Order. So we all know each other, and we can communicate in shorthand. If the scripts are not good, I'll tell somebody, "This isn't good." The margin notes are not for the writers, they go to the executive producer, and I try to make them short and succinct. People recognize certain things, like "D" means "this dialogue stinks." We're dealing with shows that are written here, shot in New York and posted back here. Accurate communication is a necessity.
A number of people told me that you genuinely love television, but you've also said that "television eats its young."
I do love television. But the business is accelerating and people are not getting the chance to fail. There was an interesting article in Los Angeles Magazine about women directors. A woman director makes one bad independent film and her career is over. Guys tend to get an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Well, television has become an unforgiving environment and you don't get to make mistakes. That was the great thing about Universal in the old days. I was running Miami Vice, but it wasn't my show so I got to learn an enormous amount. You were basically getting trained to have your own show. Now somebody comes on as a staff writer and the next year they've got a hot agent and then they're a supervising producer. In their second or third year in the business they've got a development deal and God forbid their shows get ordered because those people are not going to know what to do. And once you have a disaster you don't get a second chance
How else do you see the business changing?
The threat to free television. The reason television is free is because it is a life support system for commercials. That fundamental aspect is about to change. TIVO executives stand up and say, "Well, we're not getting rid of commercials, but we are letting them fast forward, because people like commercials, and if they see one that they like they stop and watch it." I mean, please. That is just specious. Once you get video streaming to your TV set, you go from a two-box universe to a one-box universe. And the consumer doesn't care. They don't watch networks, they watch TV shows. Once NBC puts the new episode of Law & Order on at ten o'clock Wednesday night, and for the next week it's streaming and you can pull it down whenever you want into your TV set, then you are going to have a situation where advertisers can get very precise. Once that happens, the CPM (cost per thousand) model of commercial television goes out the window. Does a particular viewer have a small child? No? Then why would Procter & Gamble spend millions of dollars advertising a baby product to them when they could use that money to reach consumers who actually have a baby? They could hit them six times an hour and not hit the rest of us at all. At which point, there is no economic model for free television. That means everybody has to agree that there is a payment schedule for reuse on the diminishing number of shows that are going to go into syndication. The shows that will be valuable will be aimed at very specific markets: the 18 to 22-year-old males who are going to buy their first car in the next six months; the 17 to 24-year-old women who've just had their first child; and so on. It's not going to be cost-per-thousand, its going to be cost-per-consumer. There are very few shows that are going to justify the expense of the production and marketing that it takes to launch these shows.
Could you take those trends a couple of years into the future?
I hardly see myself as a futurist. The environment doesn't change that radically. You are still going to go home at night and NBC is going to be there, ABC and CBS will still be there. Law & Order will still be on the air, ER will still be there. Video streaming will not be full screen yet. You'll still have a relatively normal network environment.
How would a strike next spring play out against the backdrop you're describing?
There is actually a legitimate strike issue, which is foreign and cable residuals for both actors and writers. Unfortunately, it is the exact same issues that the Writers Guild went out on strike for 12 years ago, and it accomplished nothing. It was a very divisive strike and in my opinion television still has not recovered from it. There was a meeting of the Writers Guild at the time and I was practically thrown off the stage for suggesting that cable was basically in its infancy and this was a strike which was unwinnable. I was called a defeatist, a quisling. I don't know if you have ever been in a Writers Guild meeting, but it's kind of like the Wobbly meetings in the 1930s, with people saying "The heel of management is on our necks," phrases that have not been in general usage for decades. And lo and behold, the strike went on for 22 weeks and destroyed the television season. A strike now would shut down production. It would be a real disaster - not just for the producers, but for the actors, the writers, the directors, the IA members, the teamsters, the commissary workers, the messengers everybody. It's show business. No show, no business.
Sounds like many losers and no winners.
If you want an indication of what could happen during a strike, look at the success of reality shows, which don't use actors or WGA writers, and the resurgence of game shows. This winter there'll be, what, four Datelines on, and what I refer to as fabulous fake football? You're going to come into a situation in February or March where NBC has 16 hours of entertainment programming, which is just two hours more than Fox. That scenario could easily be repeated by other major and minor networks. That would lead to fewer jobs for everybody and a vastly changed television landscape.
What do you mean by a "vastly changed television landscape?"
Instead of a normal cycle of 22 prime-time hours, with 18 or 19 hours of entertainment programming and a couple hours of news magazines and a reality show and a game show, those numbers could almost become reversed in a six-to-nine month strike. Reality programming is cheap to produce. People do have viewing patterns, and you disrupt those at your own peril. That's something that everybody learned after 1988. The numbers have gone down every year since that strike. Big time. There are other options out there, after all, like read a book, go on the Internet, rent a movie. The heart and soul of network programming is series programming, the weekly repetition of characters you like having in your house. That's why network remains profitable in a sea of declining viewership. The ad revenues still go up because nothing dependably delivers the eyeballs that successful series do. Drama or comedy programming is still the surest way for advertisers to reach a mass audience. Once that changes, all bets are off.
In your view, what would that mean for WGA members?
A lot fewer jobs. A lot more cheap, unscripted product being made.
And on the management side?
The agendas on the management side of the table now are not in sync like they used to be because you have vastly different entities supplying programming to networks. You have the vertically integrated companies like Viacom, Disney and Warners and you have the non-vertically integrated companies like USA, and you've got networks like NBC that really don't care about the foreign or cable residuals because they don't own those platforms. There is a vastly conflicting array of agendas out there in terms of what people are willing to pay.
Is that lack of commonality recognized on the other side of the table?
No. There are professional negotiators working for the writers and the actors, but basically you've got the writers and actors negotiating against businessmen. That's why you get rhetoric. Saying this is not a key to popularity in Hollywood, but the dirty little secret is that at any given time - and I don't know the precise figures - about 85% of the Writers Guild members are unemployed and more than 90% of members of the Screen Actors Guild are unemployed. You have this disturbing reality that there are a lot of people who would rather say, "I'm on strike" than "I'm unemployed." And those are the people who vote for strikes. Any model that would change those numbers is categorized as elitist and non-inclusive. If you're going to vote on a television contract, there is a certain rationality to saying that the same structures that are applied to Health Plan participation should be placed on the right to vote on a strike.
You're a WGA member. What do you say to the writer who isn't working right now and who has strong views about the issues at hand?
I would say that if you really wished to be a working member of the community, don't go out on strike because then there's no work and no potential of work. When this strike is over, there will be fewer jobs. The people who were unemployed prior to the strike aren't going to be the first ones back to work. The most positive step is to try to expand the employment base by making it, if not economically friendly, at least not economically disastrous, for studios to take on deficits.
Is the way people think about a strike rooted in the way things were 12 years ago?
Everybody knows things are not the same. The people running the TV end of a major vertically integrated company know how much money a successful show can make. Their argument is that most shows are losers, which is true, but it's also disingenuous to say, "We are not going to take the risk unless it is totally covered by the few successful shows that are out there." People have always taken risks. That's the nature of show business. It is certainly the nature of television, which has been a deficit-financed business for 50 years.
What's the solution?
What I would hope is going to happen is that rather than letting it all hang fire till May, in case of the writers, or June, in the case of the actors, that management would come to the table with some kind of preemptive offer and say, "Look, here is what we can afford to pay." I don't think anybody is claiming that actors and writers are not entitled to some kind of share of the residuals schedule in foreign and cable markets because that's the main source of revenue off network, especially in longform.
So there is room for negotiation.
Definitely. What the shape of that deal is, and how the payments are tabulated is an enormously complicated problem. It's one thing if you've got a sitcom that is going to be making $350 million on the first flight of sales in free syndication, and everybody looks at those numbers, and that's the old formula. Clearly you can afford to pay residuals when you are in free syndication. De facto, you can afford to pay residuals, but not as much, when it's on a cable system that is paying 10%, 15% or 40% of what a station group pays or a show that has 90% penetration in free syndication pays. It's a computer problem, not a labor problem. The producers make a little less, while the actors and writers make a little more but there is labor peace. That was the standard modality. The great strikes of the '50s and '60s were bloody and awful, but at that point there were only three networks. Everyone came back to work. There was no Internet and no divergent platforms or distribution forms out there.
Describe some intelligent computing that creates labor peace.
I think it would look like residuals on free television. I think everybody in the business agrees that the Nielsons are inaccurate, but they are the only numbers we have. The fact is that an economic model can be drawn up that everybody can negotiate and agree upon. If you are a cable company system reaching "X" number of households, you pay "Y." If you are a pay service that has "XX" number of subscribers, you pay "Z." It's an accountant's nightmare, but it is not that difficult a computer program to figure out if you're writing code.
But it does take time.
Labor negotiations traditionally start shortly before the strike deadline. In this case, that's going to be very unsatisfactory. They should start now, laying out parameters and seeing how quickly we can get to a level where real negotiations can take place. If we go until June, it's going to screw up the season. Some people will stockpile shows, other people won't have the stamina or the manpower to do it, and then we'll be coming out of the box on a staggered schedule next season.
You'd like to see negotiations start now.
At the latest, by the first of the year. I cannot believe that people on both sides don't have a clear idea of what they need and where the breaking points are.
Let's come full circle. I asked Charlie Engel if he could give me a "Dick Wolf" moment that sticks with him. He said you had just come out of the meeting where Law & Order was picked up for five more years. Charlie's thought was, "Let's celebrate," but you were on a different track. You turned to him and said. "OK, now, to pass Gunsmoke this is what we'll have to do..." You've just locked up a deal for the longest-running cop show ever and you're thinking about Gunsmoke.
I honestly believe that anybody who does what I do and says they are not competitive is lying. You have to be competitive. It's a very competitive business. And everybody I know who does it is extremely competitive, but they show it or don't show it in different ways. As soon as you become complacent your show gets canceled.
So tell me your best-case scenario.
The best-case scenario: a prime-time schedule with no game shows, one reality show per network, one newsmagazine show per network, no sports in prime time. And a different Law & Order on every night of the week. That would be great.