Docu-drama hybrid is Peacock strike hedge

NBC is once again turning to Dick Wolf for strike insurance, readying a deal with the uber-producer to create an unscripted primetime drama for the Peacock called “Trial and Error.”

Skein, exec produced by Wolf and Oscar-winning documentarian Bill Guttentag (“You Don’t Have to Die”), will follow the professional and personal lives of five first-year assistant district attorneys in a medium-size city. The show will be edited so that it takes the form of a conventional drama, but without a script or actors.

One insider familiar with the project tagged it a “dramamentary”; another labeled it ” ‘L.A. Law’ meets ‘The Real World.’ “

The Peacock has agreed to order 13 episodes of the series for next season; a final deal is expected to be inked as soon as today. Wolf Films will be the producer of the project, with distribution handled by Studios USA Television Distribution.

In addition to the 13 segs of “Trial and Error” — which wouldn’t be affected by a strike because neither actors nor writers are involved — Wolf has already committed to make episodes of three other drama series for NBC before this spring’s potential strikes: 13 segs of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” 10 segs of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and six segs of “Law & Order.”

All told, Wolf is set to produce a whopping 42 hours of potential strike programming for NBC. While the net has other backup plans for a strike (including its newsmag “Dateline”), the Wolf-produced programming gives the Peacock a major hedge against a labor shutdown.

“And if there’s not a strike, this show is real-life ‘Law & Order.’ We know that works,” one Peacock exec said.

The genesis of “Trial and Error” can be traced to agents at UTA, which represents both Wolf and Guttentag. The agency told Wolf that Guttentag had an idea for a legal documentary series that seemed perfectly matched to Wolf’s passion for all things related to the criminal justice system. Wolf and Guttentag met, discussed ideas and ultimately agreed to team for the project.

“It seemed like the perfect meld,” one insider said, describing Wolf’s knowledge of creating primetime drama and Guttentag’s documentary expertise.

Wolf and Guttentag are hoping to shoot the series on 24-frame digital video, a process that creates a film look at a much cheaper cost, insiders said. Series will likely use music, multiple story arcs and other hallmarks of a conventional drama.

Documaker R.J. Cutler attempted to bring dramatic elements to the short-lived Fox (and soon-to-be PBS) nonfiction skein “American High” last summer.

Kudos

In addition to winning an Oscar for “You Don’t Have to Die,” Guttentag has snagged noms for “Crack USA: County Under Siege” and “Death on the Job.” He’s won Emmys for a CBS spec on the history of Life magazine and the HBO pic “A Second Chance.”

Wolf’s current “Law & Order” skeins are both hits, with the Emmy-winning original series in its 11th season (renewed through 2005) and follow-up “Special Victims Unit” locked up until 2002. He also produced the frosh syndie strip “Arrest and Trial,” which is expected to return next fall.

Elsewhere on the 2001 development front, NBC has formally picked up two more drama projects: a pilot presentation of Imagine TV/20th Century Fox TV’s “Earth Angels,” from scribe Anne Rice, and a pilot of “Chestnut Hill,” from “Providence” creator John Masius and NBC Studios.

“Angels” will be exec produced and written by Thania St. John and Toni Graphia.

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