Dick Wolf doesn’t have anything left to prove in television: His place among the ranks of phenomenally successful TV producers is secure.
But as he approached a crossroads earlier this year with the pending expiration of his overall deal with Universal TV, Wolf didn’t hesitate to sign up for another hitch with the studio that has been his home since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
Wolf Films’ three-year pact with Universal TV is among the richest in the TV biz, and it includes one pilot commitment from NBC per year. Although the TV landscape is facing seismic shifts, Wolf told Variety that he’s enthusiastic about the new world of opportunities at the Peacock, its sibling studio and the industry at large. With “Chicago Fire” at NBC, an offbeat drama in the hopper for USA and reality fare for NBC and TNT, Wolf Films’ development slate is more diverse than ever.
“I have made a conscious effort to survive, and hopefully prosper, in a massively changed environment,” Wolf said. “Not only that, these are all shows that I am really happy to be able to produce.”
This fall, as “Law and Order: SVU” hits its 14th season, the character-heavy “Chicago Fire” marks Wolf’s first non-“Law and Order”-branded drama for NBC since “Conviction” in the 2005-06 season. He’s also teamed with Mark Burnett to produce the ambitious reality skein “Stars Earn Stripes,” which will feature nine celebs competing to complete military exercises in an effort to raise money for veterans service orgs and charities. The show will get a big push from the Peacock on the heels of Summer Olympics coverage in August.
For USA Network, Wolf is taking an even bigger detour, developing a drama about an insurance investigator whose trophy wife turns out to be a man. At TNT he’s teamed with reality specialists Magical Elves for an unscripted series, “Cold Justice,” that tracks an investigator and prosecutor as they dig into cold cases.
With NBCUniversal’s corporate decision to return Universal TV to the business of producing for outside networks, keeping Wolf in the fold was a priority for the studio. And Wolf made a move to bring in new blood last year by recruiting former Showtime exec Danielle Gelber as head of development to work with longtime lieutenants Peter Jankowski, prexy and COO of Wolf Films, and Arthur Forney, head of post-production and a frequent helmer on Wolf shows.
Wolf’s “name is synonymous with breakout, sophisticated, broad, global, entertaining television hits,” said Universal TV exec veep Bela Bajaria. “He has an iconic brand that has provided hundreds of hours of amazing, quality television for decades.”
NBC’s new regime was also eager to develop the next generation of Wolf Films shows for the mothership network. Wolf has seen his share of NBC administrations come and go, but his friendship with NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt dates back 18 years to Greenblatt’s days at Fox, when he developed the Wolf drama “New York Undercover,” which ran for four seasons.
“After so many years respecting Dick Wolf from afar, I am so thrilled to be able to finally work with him,” added NBC Entertainment prexy Jennifer Salke.
Wolf has long been a keen observer of business trends in television. The fact that the primetime production biz is in the midst of a fundamental transition of profit models and distribution strategies is “totally energizing,” he said.
“This is the biggest change in the business model of television since it began. The challenges to create programming that audiences want to see and have the potential to make a profit have never been more daunting,” Wolf said. “It is incumbent upon producers to maintain both creative and financial discipline in this new era. Thankfully, Wolf Films has the long-term infrastructure to make this possible.”
And despite the emerging new world order, the mandate for TV creatives hasn’t changed all that much, Wolf said.
“Our primary job is still to create programming that performs on the network,” Wolf said. “We are dealing with a new reality (and) no one can predict what the long-term effect of a variety of forces will have on back end values. What is the value going forward of off-network sales to basic cable networks, when you factor in penetration of online services such as Netflix and Hulu? That’s still unknown. ..(But) the bottom line is that successful, and high quality programming will always attract top dollar.”
Wolf’s pact with Universal TV was brokered by WME and attorney Cliff Gilbert-Lurie of Ziffren Brittenham.