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'Law & Order' Creator Gets Fresh

A new series from Dick Wolf about young D.A.s stars a bunch of hotties, much to NBC's liking.

January 22, 2006|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Dick Wolf, television's king of the procedural cop drama, built his empire on a string of grumpy old men. So when his newest series debuts in March, fans of the character actors who gave Wolf's "Law & Order" franchise gravitas -- Jerry Orbach, Fred Thompson and Sam Waterston -- will be in for a shock.

"Conviction," a sudsy look at the lives of seven New York assistant district attorneys, features a passel of beautiful people as its main characters, just one of whom is over 40. And that poor guy is killed off before the end of the pilot.

Asked last week whether "Conviction" is trading furrowed brows for fresh faces in a play for younger viewers, Wolf was characteristically frank.

"Unabashedly," said the 59-year-old hit maker. "That's who the advertisers want to reach. That's who the networks want to watch their shows. And it's not a mystery that people like watching people who are like themselves."

Wolf's wooing of the youth market, which he will officially unveil today in Pasadena at the semiannual gathering of the Television Critics Assn., couldn't come at a better time for NBC, the network he has made his home for more than two decades.

Last season, NBC plummeted from first place to fourth in prime time among 18- to 49-year-old viewers. Just as alarming to executives there was that their audience was rapidly turning gray. Two seasons ago, the median age of NBC's prime-time audience was just under 46 years old. This season, NBC's audience has "aged up" to 49 years.

"We're trying to turn a page right now," said Kevin Reilly, NBC's entertainment president. "We're trying to rebuild our schedule by introducing new shows that have distinct points of view. And the fact that Dick Wolf is on board with us says that he's turning a page too."

Wolf wasn't always "on board." Last year, NBC executives gave the quick hook to Wolf's fourth installment of his profitable franchise, "Law & Order: Trial by Jury." Wolf, whose shows have been the bedrock of NBC's prime-time schedule and made the company hundreds of millions of dollars, was furious.

Then, NBC delivered to Wolf what to him was the ultimate slap: It replaced his ripped-from-the-headlines show with "Inconceivable," a hormone-charged drama about a fertility clinic that survived on the air just two weeks.

NBC's reasons for canceling "Trial by Jury" were twofold, said executives involved in the decision. The network was trying to send a signal to advertisers and Hollywood's creative community that NBC was more than the "Law & Order" network. Plus, the median age of the audience for "Trial by Jury" was nearly 54.

But Wolf fumed that NBC seemed to have predetermined that the show would skew older when it placed it in the 10 p.m. Friday slot, when nearly half of the broadcast networks' audience is older than 50.

So when it came time to tear down the elaborate "Trial by Jury" sets, which had cost $2 million to build, Wolf refused.

And that, it turned out, would prove to be a masterful strategic move that eventually helped get "Conviction" greenlighted.

NBC isn't the only network sensitive about the age of its audience. Last May, CBS canceled its oldest-skewing shows: "60 Minutes 2," "JAG," "Judging Amy" and even "Joan of Arcadia." CBS was attempting to dial down the median age of its prime-time audience, which is 51.7. In comparison, ABC's audience comes in at 46.3 and Fox Broadcasting is the youngest of the Big Four networks at 41.8.

But NBC was in a particular pickle. "Our [median] age has climbed dramatically because we have older shows on our schedule," Reilly said. "Shows tend to get older audiences when they stay on the air longer."

For example, viewers who were in their mid-30s in 1990, when Wolf's first "Law & Order" launched, now are over 50. The median age of that Wednesday night show's audience is 52.1. "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," the Sunday installment, is even older: 53.2. Only the Tuesday night show, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," has a median within the desired demographic and just by a whisker: 49.

"Dramas have always skewed older," Wolf said. "You have to have a certain number of miles on the odometer to have the desire to sit down and watch something that requires some thinking."

So when Wolf agreed to stock the "Conviction" cast with nothing but hotties, he got a warm reception. Gone was the "Law & Order" signature in the title. Gone was the familiar percussive theme song. And most important, Wolf deviated sharply from his tried-and-true formula: building each episode around solving a single crime.

"Conviction" will have multiple story lines and delve deeply into the fears, foibles and sex lives of its young professionals. And yes, it will be shot on those $2-million "Trial by Jury" sets that Wolf stubbornly refused to destroy.

"I knew I'd never get to build another set like that," Wolf said.

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