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Upfronts 2016: Dick Wolf Cements His Integrated ‘Chicago’ Empire with ‘Justice’ Pickup

Dick Wolf has set the fourth leg of his “Chicago” table with NBC’s order for “Chicago Justice,” the third spinoff of the procedural franchise that bowed in 2012 with “Chicago Fire.”

The “Justice” pickup means that the Wolf Entertainment banner will produce some 110 hours of scripted drama for NBC in the coming season, with 22 episodes apiece for the “Chicago” quartet plus the workhorse “Law & Order: SVU.”

In addition, NBC has a backdoor pilot for an unscripted series, “Law & Order: You the Jury,” planned to air as a special. And there’s another extension of the “Law & Order” brand in the works as a miniseries, “Law & Order: True Crime,” which will revisit the sordid story of the murderous Menendez brothers. Outside of the NBCU family, he’s also producing the unscripted series “Nightwatch” for A&E Network.

Having five scripted drama series on NBC is a personal best for Wolf. In the 2005-06 season he had four shows on the Peacock: the mothership “Law & Order,” plus “SVU,” “Criminal Intent” and the one-season-and-out “Law & Order: Trial By Jury.”

Jerry Bruckheimer still holds the producer’s record for most scripted series in a single season. His prolific shop fielded 10 dramas in the 2005-06 season, anchored by the “CSI” franchise (which is now out of active production for the first time since 2000 with CBS’ cancellation this week of “CSI: Cyber”).

But the primetime landscape has changed enormously in the past decade. Wolf’s achievement with the “Chicago” shows is notable because of the shrinking supply of sturdy procedurals that are a vital part of the vertebrae of any network schedule — shows that can run the marathon of 22 (or more) episodes a season and repeat well (at least decently) when need be.

“Chicago Fire” ranks as NBC’s second most-watched scripted series this season, behind “Blindspot,” with an average of 11.6 million viewers and 2.9 rating in the adults 18-49 demo in Nielsen’s live-plus-7 ratings. This season’s new addition, “Chicago Med,” has averaged 10.7 million viewers and 2.6 in the demo, followed by “Chicago P.D.” with 10.5 million viewers and 2.7 in L7 ratings.

By any measure, those are impressive numbers in a world of 400-plus scripted series, and the “Chicago” shows have been a crucial part of NBC’s rebound to No. 1 in adults 18-49 during the past three seasons. Wolf, who was down to one primetime drama in 2011 after “Criminal Intent” was cancelled, is once again a force to be reckoned with at NBC.

“I have ludicrously high hopes that (the ‘Chicago’ shows) will be on for a long time because they have settled in,” Wolf said in January.

From the start, the “Chicago” shows were conceived in an unusually expansive way, designed to function as modular elements of a single world. There’s much more emphasis on integrating characters and themes than was ever woven in to the “Law & Order” world.

Most of the “Chicago” episodes end with some of their hard-working firefighters, cops, doctors and nurses (and soon lawyers and such) mingling at the city’s famed Molly’s watering hole. That’s not by accident. Wolf envisions a time when the shows run as one large block in syndication (NBCUniversal’s USA Network seems a logical home for “Chicago” reruns but there’s no such deal at present). He has also talked about wanting to submit the shows en masse for industry awards such as the SAG Awards.

“Nobody else is making television like this,” Wolf said in January.

Wolf acknowledges that the material mined on the “Chicago” shows is generally less heady than the “Law & Order” franchise at its best. The formula that caught fire for “Fire” is pretty simple: “Hot guys who take their shirts off a lot,” he quipped. But in this day and age, 30 million-plus viewers a week (more than half of whom watch the shows on a time-shifted basis) can’t be wrong.

” ‘Fire’ is really a blue-collar soap opera,” he said. “And god knows soap operas have been running for 50 years.”

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