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.
Reilly acknowledged that within NBC’s Burbank office, “saving the sets” became “kind of this interesting inspiration. We had wanted to do a show about D.A.s -- that concept was in the ether. And about the same time, Dick started talking about doing a show about young D.A.s.”
Although NBC didn’t greenlight “Conviction,” which costs the company about $2.4 million an episode, just to save the sets, nobody minded that the recycling saved the network money and time.
“We were able to fast-track the show because we didn’t have to spend time building sets,” Reilly said. “We had the need and the opportunity to make it work.”
Last week, NBC executives debated where in its lineup to place Wolf’s new show. They don’t have a lot of options.
NBC doesn’t want to schedule it on Tuesdays opposite Fox’s younger-skewing doctor drama, “House,” or “American Idol,” which returned last week to 35 million viewers, the show’s biggest audience ever for a season premiere. Nor does NBC want to put “Conviction” in another suicide slot -- Wednesdays at 9 p.m. -- in which it would compete against ABC’s juggernaut “Lost.”
That leaves 10 p.m. Friday, the slot previously occupied by “Trial by Jury.”
And that, say analysts and advertisers, won’t go far in helping attract people under 35. The show’s success “depends on where on the schedule NBC puts it,” said Jason Maltby, president of national TV for ad-buying firm Mindshare. “And putting it on Friday night isn’t going to help.”
Shari Anne Brill, programming director for another ad-buying firm, Carat USA, agreed: “It’s tough to launch a show at Friday at 10 when younger viewers aren’t around.”
While stopping short of revealing where in the lineup “Conviction” is likely to air, Reilly defended the Friday night slot, saying “Law & Order: SVU” and John Wells’ “Third Watch” prospered in that hour.
Although Wolf grouses about the advertising industry’s obsession with the 18-to-49 demographic, he has to admit that he’s excited by the freshness of “Conviction.” Instead of the police “procedural,” his stock in trade, Wolf is calling the new show a “character-cedural.”
He scoffs at any suggestion that he might be selling out to the youth-obsessed industry, noting that the average age of an actual New York assistant attorney is 28.
“The show reflects reality. If you walk into any courthouse around the country, you will see young people,” he said. “What are people going to say, that I’m selling out to reality?”
And what a reality it is. In the first episode, a tousled assistant district attorney, played by 27-year-old Eric Balfour, accidentally leaves his badge in the bed of a character a colleague later describes as a “skinny chick with an octopus tattoo.” Det. Lennie Briscoe, the iconic “Law & Order” character played by the late Orbach, never had problems like that.
Which is just the way Wolf wants it. On his trademark shows, he said, the main characters have always been portrayed as confident veterans whose personal angst rarely figures into the plot.
“You don’t see Jesse Martin or one of Sam [Waterston’s] assistants throwing up in the bathroom,” he said. But with “Conviction,” you will.
“It’s great to see the legal system through the eyes of a newcomer,” Wolf said. Come March, he’ll find out whether TV viewers agree.