In their hearts, many TV producers probably fancy themselves Andy Warhols: pop artists who make the stuff of mass culture and commerce into art, as Warhol did with the Campbell's soup can. Dick Wolf thinks of himself as the Campbell Soup Co. The man who runs the Law & Order empire--on which, thanks to spin-offs and cable repeats, the sun never sets--had a first career in advertising, writing copy for the likes of Crest toothpaste. So it is without irony that he often compares his cop shows to the red-and-white can. "If you like soup, and you see the brand," he says, "you know that you can cook it, and it'll work."
This theory not only has made Wolf into a TV tycoon but also has changed TV drama itself. Wolf produces three L&O series for NBC (Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) plus a reality series (Crime & Punishment), and he says he already knows what the fourth L&O series will be (we're guessing Law & Order: Hearty Beef with Country Vegetables). The original L&O is a cool-headed procedural and law drama; SVU handles emotion-charged sex-crimes cases; CI is a Columboesque whodunit. But the brand promises certain constants: competent mysteries, intelligent but not intellectual, neatly wrapped up at the end of each episode; a pro-cop attitude; and little mushy stuff about characters' personal lives. For busy viewers, the label is a godsend: decisions, decisions...ah, hell, I'll just open a can of Jerry Orbach! But now Wolf is launching an ambitious new brand: a remake for ABC of Dragnet (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), the 50-plus-year-old cop show that inspired L&O's "Just the facts, ma'am" sensibility.
Wolf, 56, is able to branch out like this because--in a business in which producers tend to see themselves as the visionaries and see the network brass as the businesspeople--he runs L&O like a CEO. Unlike such micromanagers as The Practice's David E. Kelley or The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, he delegates heavily to his staff. And because his shows emphasize stories over character development, each actor is replaceable; L&O has run since 1990 without Friends-style salary increases or creative exhaustion. "Other shows eventually descend into a kind of soap opera," says Dragnet executive producer Walon Green. "Dick's shows are really cleverly disguised anthologies." As Dragnet star Ed O'Neill notes, this means Wolf's actors don't get Emmy-clip dramatic scenes. "That 'My kitten died' stuff," he says, "that's just not going to happen."