NBC and Dick Wolf: It's Dog Eat Dog

The Peacock network, desperate to score in the May sweeps, is willing to risk alienating one of its top producers

By Ron Grover

Dick Wolf is the King of Television. After 300 episodes and 12 years, his crime drama Law & Order is still a winner, ranked ninth in the Nielsen ratings with 19% of TV sets tuned in on Wednesday nights. That show has spawned two spin-offs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. They're ranked 16th and 21st, respectively, for the year, giving Wolf a trifecta of ratings leaders that no one else in Hollywood quite matches.

No surprise, then, that NBC, which airs the Law & Order shows and makes lots of money from them, loves Wolf. But all's fair in love and ratings races, and when the annual May sweeps roll around in a few weeks, the Peacock network will be taking dead aim at their very own hero. In a scheduling twist that has half of Hollywood scratching their heads, the General Electric-owned network will be airing an extra episode of Criminal Intent on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., putting it directly against another Wolf production, the reborn "just the facts" cop show Dragnet, which airs on network rival ABC.

And to put it mildly, that has Wolf a little steamed, according to folks close to the TV producer. Wolf declined to comment on this issue, insisting that I direct my questions instead to NBC.


  The network's willingness to anger one of its top producers shows that, for all the pleasantries that go on when titans of the tube meet at The Palm, network TV remains a fairly cutthroat business. Execs get paid to win ratings races, and NBC is in a doozy right now. The season's end is fast approaching, and it has lost 12% of its overall ratings, falling well behind CBS in the overall race.

Worse yet, NBC has been slipping closer and closer to losing the top spot among the 18- to 49-year-old viewers that advertisers crave. Fox, which is cleaning up with American Idol, is quickly closing in on NBC. And in the February sweeps -- a crucial report card that allows local affiliates to set their ad rates -- NBC fell to second behind CBS in overall viewers, and it lost the top ranking among 18- to 49-year-olds to Fox.

Desperate to erase some nasty trends, NBC isn't pulling its punches. It intends to air back-to-back episodes of one of its franchise shows, it says. "What we're doing is utilizing our best assets," says Rebecca Marks, NBC's senior vice-president and spokeswoman. "We obviously value Dick Wolf. He's a great producer, and Law & Order is the mother ship."


  Marks also points out that NBC isn't rolling out its big bazookas. It has scheduled reruns, not originals, against Dragnet. Until recently, NBC had been airing Boomtown against Dragnet in the 10 p.m. Sunday slot. That show was doing only slightly better than Dragnet, ranking 55th, vs. Dragnet's 66th.

None of that seems to matter to Wolf. With Dragnet, he hopes to build a second franchise that he can exploit with similar spin-offs, a la his Law & Order juggernaut. That's why he chose to take Dragnet to ABC, which has more open time slots. Dragnet wasn't a sure thing to return to ABC this fall, even before NBC decided to aim one of Wolf's own shows at him. Now its chances may be just a little worse. ABC isn't commenting on its plans for Dragnet, nor on the coming face-off between the two Wolf shows.

Where does that leave the NBC-Wolf relationship? NBC has the rights to the current Law & Order trio, so even if the producer is furious about any potential sabotage to Dragnet, he can't yank Law & Order from NBC. Wolf is cagey about what he might do with future shows, however, hinting that he might go elsewhere. "I've got Law & Order 4 and 5 in my head," he says.

Does that mean NBC will reconsider its plan to take on Dragnet? I wouldn't bank on it. In ratings wars, networks take no prisoners. Not even if one happens to be the King of Television.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell