Today’s podcast is a conversation with Peter Jankowski, President and Chief Operating Officer of Dick Wolf Enterprises, and Executive Producer of all of the iterations of the Law and Order franchise as well as Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In this conversation, Peter and I discussed the people and forces that shaped his approach to storytelling, and we zeroed in on his experiences as the overseer of Dick Wolf’s sprawling creative empire, with a particular focus on the original Law and Order series and Law and Order: SVU. 

One piece of context, before we begin.  Prior to my interview with Peter, the students in the class screened the Pilot episode of the first Law & Order series entitled “Prescription for Death” which originally aired on September 13, 1990 as well as the episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit entitled “The Undiscovered Country” which aired in Season 19 as Episode 13 on February 7, 2018. That’s right those episodes premiered 27 and a half years apart from one another.

And so without further ado, here is my interview with Peter Jankowski.


Kary Antholis:  

Welcome everybody, and please join me in welcoming Peter Jankowski. Law & Order: SUV has been on the air for 18 years. The original Law & Order was on the air for 20 years. 

Peter Jankowsi:

Are we on our 18th season or 19th season?

Kary Antholis:

19th-

Peter Jankowsi:

I think it’s the 19th season, right? We’re trying to get the 21 to beat Law & Order but, in today’s television, that’s a tricky task. So yes, knock on wood.

Kary Antholis:

Knock wood. I’m going to ask Peter to first take us through the stepping stones from his education through to Wolf Films.

Peter Jankowsi:

I was born in Jamaica, New York a long time ago. Back in the early 60s and grew up in Connecticut, went to school in Massachusetts. Out of school, I came out to Los Angeles. I benefited from a father who was in the business at a fairly exalted level. He was the president of CBS from ’77 to ’87.

And I knew I wanted to get into that business because I loved what my father did and the interactions he had with his work, but I didn’t wanna be around my father. He was in New York. I came to Los Angeles. I started working for Universal Television fairly quickly after getting out to Los Angeles. I had a couple low-paying PA jobs. Worked my way into the executive ranks as what they call the current television executive.

I ended up running that department at Universal. That’s about ’89 or so and, as I held that job, I oversaw a bunch of shows, many of which you’ve probably never heard of: Quantum Leap, Coach, Major Dad. I had the last year of Magnum, Equalizer. Universal was known as a one-hour action studio. Half hours were a little bit fewer and far between… And I met Dick Wolf.

He was actually working on Miami Vice, running that show. And I was not part of the development process for Law & Order. It actually had a very tortured development process we can get into now or later, but I was not part of that. I joined Dick’s company and started running it in about ’92, a year after Law & Order had been on the air. So, it’s really a stepping stone. I mean, I haven’t really had a lot of jobs in the business. And long before most of you, probably all of you were born, I’ve been working for Dick. So that’s my little story.

Kary Antholis:

And, tell us about how you came to be hired by Dick. How did that conversation go?

Peter Jankowsi:

So I said yes a lot. I don’t know, we just hit it off. You know, it was at a time when MCA had sold the company to Matsushita and Universal then was sold by Matsushita to Seagrams. And then it was about that time where I didn’t have a lot of faith in the Seagram’s management and I could see it kind of trickling down to my level. I decided that being an executive wasn’t for me at Seagrams and Dick and I hit it off. I mean, it was just a great friendship.

He needed someone to run the shows or the things he was working on. He’s not a detail guy and you know, I’m a good detail guy. You know, he looks at the horizon and I look at what’s in front of me. And together we just had a really good team. So, I made the jump— glad I did— and been with him ever since.

Kary Antholis:

And, he had how many shows on the air at that time?

Peter Jankowsi:

I don’t know. I mean, he had Law & Order on the air, and then there were a couple of 13 and outs. Shows that I gotta say, I’m sure he’s not wildly proud of because it didn’t work. There was a show called Help, which was a fire show. There was a show called Man and Machine, which was about a female-cop cyborg. You can kinda get the picture. 

He was out wandering, looking for what his thing was, and Law & Order was not a big hit at the time. It got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t a big hit. Quite honestly, it had never been a big hit. but Dick is a master salesman. There is nobody better, and every year he was able to get something else going. 

And there was another show that came along. I don’t remember the date, but it was called New York Undercover. And something we’re talking about maybe getting going again, but that was on for five years in that period too. and then SVU came along and then the volume started to pick up again.

Kary Antholis:

Although you weren’t around for the development of Law & Order, clearly you’re aware of the tortured development history of it. Give us a sense of the origin story of the show.

Peter Jankowsi:

It’s a good lesson on “stick-to-itiveness”. Dick wrote the pilot for Law & Order, which was not this episode. This is the first one to air, but it was not the first show shot. That show was written by Dick sold to Barry Diller at Fox when the Fox Network was just starting up. Barry Diller bought it, loved it. “We’re not gonna make it,” and, “It’s just not a Fox show.” Fox was young, hip, and God knows why they bought it in the first place. 

Dick then took it and sold it to, was it CBS? As a Universal executive, we shot the pilot for CBS. And I wanna say it was Jeff Sagansky at the time? Liked the pilot, didn’t wanna pick it up. And then it went to NBC, Brandon Tartikoff saw it. He fell in love with it. He became the champion of it and put it on. And this is a two and a half year process almost from beginning to end. 

So, you know, kudos to Dick. He had the door slammed in his face many, many times on this. Most shows don’t evolve this way.

Kary Antholis:

Tell me about how the show evolved into its kind of sweet spot or did it? Did it come fully-formed? That first episode, the pilot seemed incredibly developed. 

Peter Jankowsi:

I think it was the sixth show we shot. The beauty of it was they picked up the show for 13 episodes and we aired them out of order. The pilot actually aired number seven or eight. The pilot was good. It was actually much rougher looking than this, believe it or not. It was shot on 16 millimeter. There were no camera tricks. It was just a handheld dolly, and it was rough. I mean, it was a really rough pilot. It was based on the Bonfires of the Vanities Tom Wolf novel. 

We put the camera on the dollies and started to get a little more, I don’t know-

Kary Antholis:

Cinematic.

Peter Jankowsi:

Artistic, cinematic, artistic. We went to a 16 millimeter, I think it was a 16 plus. What was it called back then?

Kary Antholis:

Super 16?

Peter Jankowsi:

Super 16. And it was a bigger film stock. And it just let a lot more light in, and the show just looked a little richer. Still looks archaic by today’s standards, but it was an evolution. It wasn’t until year five or six where it really started to look glossy and I’m not even sure that was the best thing to do with the show, but ultimately it just got prettier.

And so by the 20th season, we were actually trying to get back to the roots of it. Never quite got there and I think it’s also because viewers are so used now to seeing a beautiful picture that, going back too far is gonna jar too many people.

Kary Antholis:

Thank you so much for sharing the Bible that you sent, I know I found it very informative. I’m gonna go through it sort of beat by beat.

Peter Jankowsi:

Just sort of an interesting perspective on the show. Because The Bible was done… I don’t know if there’s a date on it. I don’t know what the date was, but 2004 or something like that. And it was done because Law & Order started to kick in, in syndication, but Law & Order was never a really big hit. 

Law & Order kind of hovered around Friday night at 10, a couple of 10 o’clock spots during the week… back then it was a 23 share when a 30 share was where you really wanted to be. Since then it’s obviously come down. 

But, it wasn’t a big hit. When Law & Order became kind of a cultural thing, was when it went to A&E and it was sold for, I think $160,000 an episode, which is nothing. I mean, it was thrown away and it was on there for about four or five years. And when that cycle ended, it was sold into TNT and it took off…

It was really the phenomenon of the second running of Law & Order that people got really excited by. You know, compared to like a CSI. CSI was a big fucking hit, pardon the French, right out of the gate. And on the network, people would, you know, be there en masse. We’ll have 40 million people a week watch the show, but most of that is in syndication. It’s a different phenomenon.

Kary Antholis:

So, why was this Bible created? was it created so that as writers came to the show…

Peter Jankowsi:

I think you saw the clip at the beginning. Three countries, France wanted to do it, England wanted to do it, Russia wanted to do it. I think it’s in its 12th season in Russia. And to be quite honest with you, I’ve seen like two episodes. We just ship the scripts off and they make them, but it was made for those people to understand what the show was about.

Kary Antholis:

I see. So an effort to franchise it and sell the format. That’s part of what it is. 

Peter Jankowsi:

Yep.

Kary Antholis:

Got it. so, we start with the teaser and hook people into the story. Can you-

Peter Jankowsi:

Usually, somebody dies.

Kary Antholis:

And usually our character, our regular characters are not in that opening tease, right?

Peter Jankowsi:

No, normally what happens in the opening tease, and I remember this episode off the top of my head. But normally what happens is– and it was raised to an art form by Jerry Orbach– You would have them arrive on the scene. And in fact, yes, in the first season, we had a bunch of teasers without our actors in it, but then we quickly went to the actors being in the teaser. And in fact, it’s all through their point of view as I remember. 

Other shows we’ve had like Criminal Intent with Vincent D’Onofrio that would be like a Colombo: You’d set up the whole crime in the tease, which could last 10 minutes. But Law & Order was always a cop show up and Jerry Orbach would end it with a joke.

Kary Antholis:

Act one: The notes that I made from the Bible are empathy with the victim. You’re never ahead of the detectives and there’s a sharp turn in that first act. 

Peter Jankowsi:

Correct.

Kary Antholis:

Particularly during the first half of the show, the crime investigation part of the show, scenes are very short. You’re in late and out early.

Peter Jankowsi:

You wanna get into the scene as late as possible, and you wanna get out of it as early as possible. So you get the center of it and we can have this discussion in the Law & Order and the SVU, they’re a good contrast because the first Law & Order, it’s pretty stripped down stuff. There’s emotion in it, but you’re not hanging around to find out what people are doing after work.

The last SVU, it’s a lot more heartfelt, a lot more empathetic, a lot more character. And, by nature, the scenes are longer. In fact, on the SVU, there are a lot of scenes in there that would never make it into Law & Order. I mean, Dick used to call them pathetic. Like there’s too much passion. There’s too many tears, too much of this, too much of that. 

But that’s what it’s evolved to. And I got to tell you Mariska Hargitay is a really big part of that, because Mariska is the best listener in the world and the best emoter in the world, and the show itself is about emotional themes that you can’t treat the same way you treat them on Law & Order. You have to get into them and let people emote and be empathetic and really let it play out.

Kary Antholis:

In act two, the investigation becomes more complex-

Peter Jankowsi:

The trick about act one is, and once again on Law & Order the original, it was tough because you wanted to drop a body in the tease but, by the very nature of the fact that there’s a dead person in the tease, you can’t really connect with the dead person. You need an emotional touchstone and all of these.

So, we would go and find the family and try to connect emotionally that way or find someone they know. Very important, because if you don’t have that connection, you’re just watching an exercise. And that usually took place in the first act.

Kary Antholis:

By the end of act two, it culminates with an arrest and you start to bring in the DA’s, correct?

Peter Jankowsi:

Correct. When Law & Order was created, it was at a time when, as I talked about the A&E sale, $160,000 an episode, which is nothing. It was a time when our dramas couldn’t get arrested. There were no big hour dramas coming out in syndication, and no one was buying them if they were. 

Dick wanted to create a show that could be bifurcated that, at the half-hour, you could cut it in half and take the law part and sell it in the syndication as a half-hour and, and take the police part and sell in the syndication as a half-hour. That was the idea going in. That was a gimmick. Never happened, never could happen. We never designed it that way, but that was the approach going in.

Kary Antholis:

But the procedural nature of it did, essentially, reinvent the syndication market for one-hour dramas, yes?

Peter Jankowsi:

I don’t know about that. I mean, it certainly started the rebirth of procedurals. A lot of them were from us on television, but I’m not sure it reinvented the hour market. The hour market just sort of found its own footing because there were other shows that, a couple of years later or five years later, ER came out and Homicide sold. The golden years of– at least back then we thought it was a golden years– I think today’s a golden era of television. But back then, there was a kind of a golden era of Homicide, ER, Law & Order but it was really like great network drama was… I’m referring probably to a time when networks were so big. There was really no cable, so to speak. There were cable outlets, but they weren’t that powerful. Obviously no streaming. It was network, I mean, you’d have three shows on the three networks and they’d get a 65 share of the audience watching, maybe even bigger every single night. Obviously it doesn’t happen anymore.

Kary Antholis:

Act three: Tell us a little bit about reset moments, as they’re referred to in the Bible. Where you reset the facts of the case… And then take the show in a different direction.

Peter Jankowsi:

Through the prism of the law, you reset what took place in the first two acts. I mean, these rules are obviously broken all the time, but you would reset by restating from a legal perspective, what happened in the first two acts. Reset the emotional component, which is very important in what happened in the first two acts and basically launched the second half of the show.

And, if you notice the SVU, we have since moved to a five act structure on SVU, because networks like to have more commercial breaks, which we hate but we do it because they pay for our show. Law & Order was four acts and it was a lot simpler, it was a lot easier for us to get to that act break, four times an hour as opposed to five because five is almost a bridge too far sometimes for us, but Law & Order was perfectly bifurcated.

And when we went to the five act structure towards the end of Law & Order, it got a little hinky. You know, where is the halfway point? Where is that jump into the law? that was only about a year though.

Kary Antholis:

Talk to us about the emergence of the theme in the middle of the episode. I found it interesting that it’s the DA’s that, in framing their case. The two DA’s coming at it from slightly different points of view. That seems to be how you frame the ethical or moral theme of the episode. 

Peter Jankowsi:

The best episodes of Law & Order are episodes about an issue where all six members of the cast, all six characters, have a different point of view on the same subject, and they’re all right. You can empathize with each one of them. You understand where they’re coming from. 

I’m not sure we ever did it, but that was always what we aspired to. Because, you know, the show got preachy. All shows do at times. We really tried not to pick sides politically. The best experience for me was when I’d watch Law & Order and I’d be off at the end, because I’d feel like the show was either too liberal or too conservative for my taste. But the reality is it made me think.

Kary Antholis:

Watching the first episode, the way that the theme of alcoholism and addiction, and codependency are explored is incredibly sophisticated especially for the first presented hour of a show. Watching that, you get the sense that the team knew what they were doing and they had the DNA of the show very early.

Peter Jankowsi:

It was an intellectual DNA too. The writers that were assembled were all writers that were a little bit older so they had some life experience. we just got lucky and got the cream of the crop at the time, but guys, like… I mean, I don’t know if these names mean anything to you, but Michael Chernuchin, Rene Balcer ran the show for a while. Michael Chernuchin wrote the SVU you saw just a few minutes ago. So he’s evolved with us over time. 

Robert Palm, David Black, Robert Nathan, Jeffrey Lewis, Michael Duggan. I mean, all these guys have gone off to do their own shows. It was sort of a little Camelot kind of existence at the beginning where all these personalities came together with Dick and it became a very special place for writers. And it was also completely opposite to what other dramas were doing at the time. There really was not a lot of obvious character development.

It was, as we like to say, a lot of shows do character with soup ladles, we do it with little demi test spoons. Just a little bit. But by the end of the season, you know what these characters are all about if you’ve watched the episodes. 

Kary Antholis:

Act four. Well actually toward the end of act three…

Peter Jankowsi:

Legal twist.

Kary Antholis:

Twist and the raising of stakes.

Peter Jankowsi:

Right. If you had to make an equation out of it: First half of Law & Order is a murder mystery, second half of Law & Order is a moral mystery. And the first, end of the first act complicates the murder mystery at the end of the second, excuse me, the third act complicates the moral mystery.

Kary Antholis:

And then you go into act four and you’re resolving that moral mystery through legal procedure. 

Peter Jankowsi:

Right.

Kary Antholis:

And there’s a fourth act twist as well, correct?

Peter Jankowsi:

Well, in the original Law & Order, there’s a fourth act twist and you’re out, or you have a really strong emotional moment, you know, a verdict of some sort. In SVU, it’s just another twist, because you have to go to the fifth act. But in Law & Order was always a definitive statement of some sort.

But at the end of Law & Order, we’d always have that little tag, you know, a little two and a half minute, maybe a minute and a half discussion among the DA’s kind of recapping what the theme was of the episode. Sometimes they could get really trite. Sometimes they can get really profound, but that was something that we always stuck with. And I remember because my instinct is to sort of be the filmmaker.

And a lot of times those little tags for me killed the momentum of the story where you go out on a verdict and then you come back and you kind of deflate the bag and you’re talking about, well, you know, some little saying about what happened in the episode. I equate it with when you have somebody against the wall in a theater and you’re like, it’s a really intense moment and then you let them go.

But Dick fought for that and it became a trademark. He never let it go. And I think it’s something that gave people a little comfort at the end, you know when you look back at the episodes. At the time, it drove me nuts.

Kary Antholis:

On the last few pages of the Bible, you have a bunch of guidelines, including something we already talked about getting in as late as possible and out as early as possible. And making sure that there’s no facts that come in out of the blue. Everything seems to follow and you’re getting the information in exactly the order you should be getting it.

Peter Jankowsi:

Right. But, you know, we broke that a lot, and a lot of times stuff did come out of the blue. You know, sometimes not our finest moment. But it’s a hard thing to do. Over the years, I’ve always been amazed that they haven’t nominated more of our writers for Emmy Awards, for writing awards. We won a lot of Edgar Awards, which is the screenwriter, the mystery writer award, but not a lot of Emmy awards.

And I think people underestimate how hard it is to write these episodes. Because Hill Street Blues is a great show. In fact, a lot of the writers that work for us started on Hill Street Blues. Dick did. But Hill Street Blues is a show that when you’re going along, you’ve got three or four different storylines going at the same time. When you have a problem, you just drop it and go to another storyline, and time passes and then you come back, and things kind of solve themselves. 

Law & Order, you can’t do that. Law & Order you’ve got to stay on point the entire time. And that requires a lot of thought and a lot of discipline intellectually that a lot of writers don’t have. You know, you kind of go with your heart, that ain’t the show. Law & Order ain’t the show for you to write. You know, it needs another component of mathematical wizardry or something in order to write a Law & Order.

Kary Antholis:

Before I carry on through the Bible, one of the things that we’ve discussed in the class a bit is the legacy of two shows. You mentioned one of them, Hill Street Blues, but the kind archetypal procedural Dragnet, and Jack Webb, and I’ve read that Dick is a great admirer of Webb and of Dragnet.

Peter Jankowsi:

We tried making it. We actually did make it for 22 episodes with Ed O’Neill, who was Married with Children dad. And he was terrific. The show was really well made.

Kary Antholis:

Modern Family. They’ll know.

Peter Jankowsi:

Oh, that’s right. Modern Family, I’m sorry. I forget who I’m talking to. It was a very well-made show. Ed O’Neil was great, perfectly executed. No one gave a shit. It’s funny how shows have their moment. And Dragnet was a very dry show. Jack Webb, somehow it just caught the imagination of the country at the time. Remaking it was a mistake. We didn’t find that magical thing about it.

Kary Antholis:

Well, one of the things that we’ve discussed is that Dragnet kind of established the LAPD as the protectors of the thin blue line, the protectors of society. 

Peter Jankowsi:

That’s what Mike Post, our composer. And if you remember Dragnet, not that you have ever seen it, but everyone probably knows ‘dum, da, dum, dum’. And, you know, ‘cha-ching’ had a little bit of a homage to that.

Kary Antholis:

And then Hill Street Blues looked more at the melting pot and tried to present the culture of the police department more as a melting pot, imperfect place, and more of a soap opera as opposed to a pure procedural. And it feels like Law & Order, while rooted in the procedural discipline of Dragnet, also owes a lot to this kind of social consciousness of Hill Street Blues. Would you say that’s accurate?

Peter Jankowsi:

Hill Street Blues was… it wasn’t on all that long if I recall. It was like what? Six years.

Kary Antholis:

Six or seven. Something like that.

Peter Jankowsi:

And once again, it was never a big, big hit, but it was a classy hit, and NBC loved it. And it was a watershed moment for television because it was everything you said. It sort of went into the cop thing from a realistic perspective. Before Hill Street Blues, cops were, you know, shooting people and running around being heroes, but you didn’t see the darker side of them.

And the writing staff at Hill Street Blues: David Milch was there, Bochco, a lot of the people I mentioned from Law & Order. It was a time when the genre kind of exploded and then they all went off and did their own thing. and it may not have been the most popular show, although it did fine, but it was probably one of the more impactful blues.

Kary Antholis:

Interestingly, one of the things we talked about with respect to Hill Street Blues was this notion of branding a network through quality television. 

Peter Jankowsi:

Yeah. Yeah.

High-end smart, sophisticated viewers which also index financially higher than ABC or CBS. NBC was known as the rich network.

Kary Antholis:

Brandon Tartikoff was one of the great creators of the must-see TV, branding NBC through high-quality programming…

Peter Jankowsi:

He was a phenomenon too. I mean, it was all things coming together at the same time because Brandon fought for stuff that most executives wouldn’t have fought for. He was a class act. In fact, when he went to the Paramount theatrical side, you know, he was geared for television. He wasn’t geared for theatrical, but when he was a television boy, he just knew what people wanted and was probably a step ahead of them. He gave people things maybe they didn’t think they wanted but ultimately grew to like a lot.

Kary Antholis:

So let’s talk a little bit about this notion of each of the six main characters in the ideal show, having a different point of view. 

Peter Jankowsi:

It’s really, really hard.

Kary Antholis:

What, in your memory, was the best example of that?

Peter Jankowsi:

We did an episode called prescription for death in the second season that was about a bombing of an abortion clinic. And I can’t tell you what the points of view were but, at the moment in the country’s history, there had been a bunch of abortion bombings. People were red hot about it and you heard both sides in the press and we tackled it. And I remember four or five different points of view that all were pretty legitimate. That show was never rerun. 

We aired it once, and then NBC pulled it out of the rerun schedule. And it’s since popped up in syndication, you know, in France or something. But, it was taken out by NBC. One of the few episodes that was actually yanked, because back in the day, uh, abortion was a really, really divisive issue. 

Still is in some parts of the country, but I think it’s a lot easier to deal with now.

Kary Antholis:

We had Ed Bernero, talking about criminal minds and each of those characters are monsters. Like each of those weeks, Ed talked about how he crafted the show around Arthurian legends: They were the knights of the round table going out on a quest to slay a monster. 

One of the things that jumped out at me is that the aspiration, according to the Bible, is that none of the criminals are monsters. They’re all deeply human. 

Peter Jankowsi:

Right.

Kary Antholis:

Can you talk a little bit about that and why that’s part of the DNA of the show?

Peter Jankowsi:

You know, it goes back to the word empathy. I mean, it’s a word that we don’t use all that much anymore. Not as much as we should. I don’t wanna sound like too old of a guy. But, you know, understanding what people’s points of view are, why people are motivated to do certain things just because you may not agree with it, it’s really important to understand where people stand.

And we took that with Law & Order, you know, if a guy commits a heinous crime, you know, okay, he commits a heinous crime, you know. Serial killers are serial killers. They’re kind of not that interesting. What’s interesting about a serial killer is the race to get them. When we do episodes of Law & Order SVU now, you wanna understand why they’re doing what they do ’cause you can kind of relate to it on some level. 

There’s always some little point of relate-ability. Their mother was a terrible mother, or they lost their kid at an early age or something. They got something wrong with their head, something. So you kind of feel for it. You’re not just watching it, you know, get the bad guy and that’s that. It’s really important. Hard to do, but really important. I mean, Criminal Minds is a great show.

I think it’s a different approach than what we do, and I’m not value judging it because I watch it and it was a good show. but They kill people in really interesting ways on that show. I mean, there’s a sort of fascination with the dark side on that, the physical dark side, and, you know, we’ve, hey we’ve stolen from it. 

SVU gets a little grizzly, but we try not to get too grizzly. We try not to. Some of that a little bit, especially in this field, a little bit of that goes a long way.

Kary Antholis:

A little bit later, we’ll talk about that study that you gave us that compares, the Law & Order franchise with-

Peter Jankowsi:

And I gave that study and I wanna say, because when I read it the second time, I’m like, ‘Oh, looks like we’re kind of showing off.’ We’re so intellectual or some bullshit like that. I actually gave it to you because it just distinguishes what the different shows do. I don’t think any one show is better than another show. 

Obviously, they’re all hits and people like them based on their merits. But, you know, there’s a certain thing that works for us that, you know, it’s our responsibility to do a certain thing and I thought that article kind of described it.

Kary Antholis:

It was incredibly helpful. I mean, one of the central ideas of this class is to get at values and not in a moral way, but in what is driving people and what are the guiding factors in creating a show and in running and sustaining a show. And one of the things that we talked about, when we explored the CSI franchise, particularly, the flagship, was that they were consciously pushing boundaries-

Peter Jankowsi:

Oh yeah. I remember back then, you know, the idea of watching a bullet go through someone’s gut. You’re like, whoa. I mean, physically, they could do things that other shows couldn’t do. And when that show came out, I remember that show, no one believed in it at CBS. It was kind of like, thrown away on Friday night at 10 or nine or, you know, in the backwoods almost of CBS and it took off. And I think it was that kind of uniqueness about it that made people go crazy for it.

Kary Antholis:

One of the things that I really liked, just because it’s another kind of mathematical formula in the notes of the Bible was: You look for A and you find B. can you just talk a little bit about what that means?

Peter Jankowsi:

Well, if you look for A and you find A, it’s kind of boring, right? You know, you wanna shake it up a little bit. We did a Menendez episode in the middle of the run of the Law & Order, and you would think it’s the Menendez at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second act. Actually, it was the end of the first act. We just discarded the Menendez, two kids killing their parents, and jumped in another direction, and it screws with your expectation. The structure of Law & Order, Dick likes to call it a high Catholic mass where you kind of know what the beats are, you know. Okay, now it’s time to read the Lord’s prayer and what have you. You go through it and you go through the rhythms of it but inside of it, you wanna screw with it as much as possible. So people expect the Lord’s prayer to come up, but they get something else. And that’s what kinda makes it entertaining. Their expectations are foiled.

Kary Antholis:

You gave us an introduction into how Dick assembled that first group of writers. As Dick has continued to look forward, why don’t you talk a little bit more about how you, in looking right in front of you– the collective you?

Peter Jankowsi:

I run the company. So my responsibilities are to develop new stuff with Dick, which he ultimately sells and he sells better than I do. No one sells like Dick. But my day-to-day is maintaining it’s a group of 1200 employees working for us indirectly. Wolf Film’s itself has three employees. There’s myself, somebody works with me, and Dick. But we oversee all the shows, and each show 250, 300 people in a show. 

I worry about hiring directors. It’s my job. I gotta hire the writers. I gotta keep the course pretty steady. There’s a lot going on and it all comes down to who you hire. It doesn’t matter if you’re really good at your job if you hire a lousy showrunner. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at your job if you hire a lousy director or you have a crappy actor or an actor who’s not suited to the material– You’re dead.

Kary Antholis:

Who was the first showrunner on Law & Order that you had to hire?

Peter Jankowsi:

Hmm, good question. Rene Balcer. I started hiring three years in and Rene came in and he did four or five years. He was great.

Kary Antholis:

And what are you thinking about as you go to make that hire and how has that evolved over the various-

Peter Jankowsi:

They’ve got to be a good writer, they’ve got to be really smart, they have to be obsessive. Because it’s about getting out 22 scripts and that’s a lot of work. That requires a lot of lonely nights. It requires a lot of effort that most people aren’t willing to put in. They’ve got to be almost psychotically obsessive about the show. And they also got to be able to get along with people enough so that they don’t piss off all the writers and actors and they all leave en masse.

Kary Antholis:

Generally speaking, have they had experience running shows before?

Peter Jankowsi:

Some do, some don’t. Normally you kind of wanna raise people from within. It gives people incentive and it’s cheaper. And I think you also in this business fall in love with the idea of something and the optimism of something. So you want things to work and you see the best-case scenarios, and so bringing people up is a great way to go.

We also hire people from the outside. Sometimes they work well with our culture. Sometimes they don’t. I’m less inclined to bring people from the outside if we can avoid it.

Kary Antholis:

Are you involved with that showrunner and putting the staff together, the writing staff?

Peter Jankowsi:

Absolutely.

Kary Antholis:

How many writers are in the room that breaks the season?

Peter Jankowsi:

You know, it depends. I think the business is getting a little bit more cost-conscious. So what used to be a six or seven-person writing staff becomes a five or six-person writing staff, but it’s, you know, that number of people. And I gotta tell you right now, it’s really hard. If you are a writer, you can write your ticket, no pun intended, because there are so many shows on the air.

When Law & Order was on, 120 shows was a big year. Now it’s about 400 and you know, there’s not a bus unloading people at LAX, you know, writers coming out of them, you know, airplanes running into this business. It’s really hard to find people who are trained to do this.

Kary Antholis:

First, is there a directing producer on the show? 

Peter Jankowsi:

Yeah. I mean, We’ve done shows without it. We did Menendez without a directing producer, the true-crime thing we did last year and I would never do it again because a directing producer is basically a tone cop.  He or she keeps you on point and also the line producer’s got to say no a lot to everybody, including the cast.

The director-producer can be a little more of a fatherly or motherly figure to the crew and it’s really important because especially when you have multiple shows on the air, you just can’t be dealing with some of that. That’s one of the important jobs they have.

Kary Antholis:

But you are involved in hiring the directors?

Peter Jankowsi:

Yeah, yeah.

Kary Antholis:

What are you looking for in hiring them?

Peter Jankowsi:

I think television has gotten more director intensive, but the writer is king in television because a writer cranks out the scripts. No scripts, no show. I think with some of the shorter orders that happen in your business– miniseries and other more restricted lengths, directors are probably more important. 

Or where directors are very important to us is in the pilot process. You know, that’s where the vision comes in. But once we create the pilot– and I’m not denigrating directors, they’re important– but the directors become traffic cops to make sure that we keep the quality and the vision going. It’s not reinventing the show every week.

Kary Antholis:

Post: Who has the final cut on the episodes?

Peter Jankowsi:

Dick has the final cut in everything. He rarely does the final cut. We tend to use Dick when we can’t agree on something. We go to dad and try to have him broker it. But we have a guy by the name of Arthur Forney who’s been with Dick and myself for another probably 20 years. 

And he has basically final cut, which is– Our company is run much differently than most companies. Most companies are run, or most shows are run by a writer-producer who is overseeing everything and has a final say on everything. We have a company that is run by Dick and there’s myself, there’s Arthur. And the three of us can overrule the actual showrunners on the various shows, which is not to say that we do it a lot, but we do do it.

And we exert influence to get things to be our way. Once again, not always right, but it creates a tonal consistency. And I think it’s actually helped Law & Order to stay on the air because we felt a lot of showrunners go through, but you kind of have to massage that process. So we’re different than most companies.

Kary Antholis:

And tell us a little bit more about Arthur’s responsibilities.

Peter Jankowsi:

He started as an editor. He is a genius editor and he hires the editors. And he does the final cuts on all the shows. He got a lot of work. He also directs episodes here and there. His job doesn’t exist in most. I mean, it’s probably like two of them in the business.

Kary Antholis:

Tell us about the spinoff of SVU. SVU is the first of the subsequent franchise –

Peter Jankowsi:

SVU: Trial By Jury, take it back. SVU: Criminal Intent, those work that’s SVU has been on, what do we say? 19 years? Criminal Intent, I think was on for…

Kary Antholis:

10?

Peter Jankowsi:

No, not that long. It was at 10… You took that out of the internet, didn’t you?

Kary Antholis:

Yeah. Well, no, I took notes. Six, seven, 2001 to 2007 on NBC. 2007 to 2011 on USA. That’s what-

Peter Jankowsi:

Oh, that’s right. I didn’t include the USA. I did an episode count before I came here, Law & Order 456 episodes, SVU 434 episodes, Criminal Intent 195 episodes, Trial by Jury, which none of you ever saw probably.

Kary Antholis:

Was that a documentary one?

Peter Jankowsi:

No, that was an attempt to do a fourth Law & Order. I got a couple of them here. That was 13 episodes. That was a Bebe Neuwirth. We took Jerry Orbach and put them on that. Unfortunately, Jerry was dying from prostate cancer and it was a tough 13 episodes. We did a Law & Order LA. That one 22 episodes and Terrence Howard was in that. 

He was a lawyer. Alfred Molina, if you know who he is, was a cop. Corey Stoll was a cop. And then we did Menendez, which was eight episodes. So that comes to 1,128.

Kary Antholis:

Did you try to do a reality, like a docu-version with Bill Gutentag at one point? 

Peter Jankowsi:

Yeah, it’s a blast from the past. Crime and Punishment, two seasons.

Kary Antholis:

And how many episodes each season of that?

Peter Jankowsi:

It was like 44 episodes. Never quite took off. Got access in San Diego to film trials. It never quite took off, and I think it was probably because we didn’t have any consistent characters going through it, so you didn’t tune in– Television is a comfort thing. You wanna see your heroes every week or your characters every week and Crime and Punishment didn’t have that. It was like a different DA every week and it just didn’t have a consistency to it. The only consistency was we’re in the San Diego court system and they were pretty compelling cases, but it never caught.

Kary Antholis:

I wanna go back to the casting on the original Law & Order and the evolution of the casting, you know, from Michael Moriarty to Sam Waterston and then from the various pairings of detectives and so on. And then the various DA pairings.

Peter Jankowsi:

Law & Order has had, I think, 27 different actors playing leads in it since it started, which is pretty astounding. But I think it’s a factor also of the fact that it wasn’t a heavy character show, so there was never really one star of the show. Michael Moriarty was great. He did four years. Sam Waterston came along. He was great too. Jerry Orbach was great. We had Paul Sorvino, we had Dennis Farina. And all these guys kind of brought us a self-made character or ready-made character to the show that didn’t overwhelm the show and the show never became dependent on it. Ben Brat, you know, Jesse Martin, all these guys came in. Diane Weest was the DA for a while, Fred Thompson. 

The show could make the cast changes because it didn’t rely on any one member of the cast. SVU, hey, you never know? But Mariska is such a star of that show. The idea of doing the show without Mariska is tough. I’m not saying never. Mariska walked away tomorrow, who knows? But it’s a tough, tough thing because we rely so heavily on her.

Kary Antholis:

So one of the things that I’ve been learning over the course of the class is that television has really evolved, particularly network television, from the era where procedural closed-ended shows without any great character arc was the model for the show because the target was first-run syndication and you needed episodes that could play in any order.

Peter Jankowsi:

Self-contained beginning, middle, and end, no real soapy stuff. I mean, ER was a mega-hit. Bigger than anything you guys have experienced and didn’t do so well after it was on the network. It’s a soap opera.

Kary Antholis:

But today, especially in this world of streaming and binging, the notion of multi-episode storylines is much more common and much more encouraged that we’ve heard. How has that bled into the Law & Order franchise and particularly into SVU?

Peter Jankowsi:

It hasn’t. You know, SVU is in the same syndication deal it’s been in, same cable deal it’s been in since 15 years ago. On USA, it repeats and Universal has other cable channels they sprinkle it through. The reason why it’s the number one show in cable right now, one in drama on cable is– and Criminal Intent is number two– is because they are self-contained. And, you know, they’re still hanging in there. I mean, Criminal Intent has been off the air for God knows how long.

Kary Antholis:

So, tell us how Mariska’s presence has-

Peter Jankowsi:

Let me interrupt that though. So we also do the Chicago shows. So we got Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, Chicago Med. If you recognize Phillip from Chicago Justice it’s because he was playing the same character in Chicago Justice. Chicago Justice got axed last year. But the world’s kind of crossover. Those shows are much more soapy. I mean, Chicago Fire’s a soap opera and for streaming, it’s great. Chicago PD is kind of half and half, but we have a lot of storylines that carry over. For streaming, it’s great. It’s also doing pretty well in cable. Chicago Med hasn’t sold yet but it’s a soap opera, it’s like ER. Wish it was as good, but it has the same DNA. Totally different than the Law & Orders.

Kary Antholis:

What is it about Mariska’s presence? What is it about SVU that distinguishes it? What do you think? How has it changed the franchise? 

Peter Jankowsi:

Mariska is a force of nature. She’s an amazing woman. She has a life force that would overwhelm all of you at the same time. I don’t know. I mean, I asked you guys in the audience, why do you like Mariska? Who does? Why? You know, I just think she’s the right person for the right role with the right writing, and it’s been a really great relationship. She’s a soulful person and it’s a soulful show.

Kary Antholis:

Special victims unit: What is it that distinguishes SVU conceptually from the other Law & Order franchises? What is it that would be in the SVU Bible that would be different from the regular Law and Order Bible?

Peter Jankowsi:

We could do the same cases. SVU is a deeply emotional approach to those cases when it works best. You know, we’ve obviously had our flops but, you know, I think the episode you watched tonight– which was on last week– it engages your heart in a way that Law & Order could do but didn’t do on a daily basis or an episodic basis. 

You know, Don Ohlmeyer who was the head of NBC in the 90’s, almost canceled Law & Order and his complaint was he respected it, but he didn’t feel emotionally attached. It was like watching, I remember he said it, Christiaan Barnard did the first heart transplant. It was like watching him perform his surgery. And what we had to do was put his kid on. 

They put Donald Ohlmeyer’s kid on the table, so you’re emotionally connected to it. And it was a big turn of events. We started writing the shows a little bit differently at that point, but SVU is an even more extreme example of that. Emotionally, you just have to connect because if you don’t, it becomes tawdry. Sometimes it looks exploitive, but if you’re connected emotionally, you start digging into the underbelly and the issues involved.

Kary Antholis:

Let’s just go back to the article that you gave us from the journal of health communication, about rape myth acceptance, and increased intentions to adhere to expressions of–

Peter Jankowsi:

We take the women’s rights, children’s rights issues extremely seriously. Sometimes I think we take it too seriously. Mariska is the Sentinel to make sure that we do it right. She has her charity called Joyful Heart, which is all a part of our lives. That amazing charity, literally it’s a part of our lives. 

I mean, everybody who works on the show goes to the events and they’re deeply emotional events where victims and their issues come out. It’s kind of a responsibility and we don’t wanna screw it up. And I think it’s what distinguishes the show on some level. You know, I’m not saying we’re do-gooders, that’s not the goal, but it’s found a unique place on television. Right now it’s the only show that really goes into a lot of these issues in a heavy, serious way.

Kary Antholis:

Just piggybacking off that question, are there any episodes of any of the shows, looking back, that became water-cooler moments unexpectedly? Kind of popped significantly?

Peter Jankowsi:

We did an abuser episode. It became a water cooler episode probably because of the casting. We did an abuser episode a few years ago with Mike Tyson and it was after Mike Tyson had been recently accused of stuff that I’m sure he did. And it created quite a stir. 

I mean, our viewers, half of them were outraged and I think half of them were fascinated. I can say Mariska was outraged and she almost killed me. She was very upset about it because she felt like we were somehow glamorizing him. I think ultimately she’s come around to it, but you know, it’s such a hot issue that when, you know, once in a while, you’re gonna step in it. 

We did a Donald Trump episode last year, the beginning of the year before he became our president. And, you know, the approach we took to it was kind of tongue in cheek. Gary Cole played it. Played it slick, big red tie, blue suit. He was campaigning for president and he was accused of sexual harassment. And l, at the end of the episode, we exonerated him, although we made him look kind of dopey throughout the episode and  NBC wouldn’t air it. So that one is sort of sitting on a shelf right now. We never even finished cutting it because we were out of step, I think, and I fought it. Half of us were looking at the election going, oh my God, Donald Trump’s president. And at the same time wondering why it was so bad there. 

This episode, there was a lot of debate about it. we ultimately chose not to. I didn’t choose not to, I would have aired it because I thought it made him look like an idiot. I’m revealing my politics here. But NBC was in the middle of it and I completely understand their point of view and you know what, it probably wasn’t what we should have done on the show. Because like I said earlier, we tend not to get political, but that one got the best of us. And I don’t think we’d do it again.

Kary Antholis:

Given that the show is, as you said, kind of ahead of the curve in terms of exploring these issues that have risen socially most recently in the Me Too movement, Is the movement reflected in kind of newer episodes of the show? 

Peter Jankowsi:

We don’t refer to Me Too. Perhaps we will, but we don’t now. I think there is a different– and I’m not even sure how to answer this– although I can say there’s a different temperature out there. So things that we would have done a few years ago are self-evident today and we may not go to those story areas.

The challenge of SVU is finding a place to talk about the issues that’s not exploitive or tawdry or so upsetting you can’t watch it. I think the walls or the parameters of that have been pushed out a little bit. And by the way, I’m not entirely comfortable with the Me Too movement because we’ve been doing it for a while and there’s a backlash sometimes on SVU that we’re exploiting women’s issues to make a television show and it gets very confusing. So everyone has a point of view about it. All we can do is keep as honest as we can to what we’re doing, and you know, hope it all shakes out.

I will say, you know, the big challenge we’re having right now is finding women who have a strong point of view who can execute the directing and the writing. It’s really important for the show. And it’s interesting as the Me Too movement has taken hold in Hollywood, it’s the best time ever to be a female creative force in Hollywood because their opportunities are plentiful. 

It’s hard to find people, women, that can articulate that for us. It’s hard because there’s just such competition now for that voice or those voices. So, I mean, for those of the women out here who wanna get in the business, now’s the time.

Kary Antholis:

Are there any shows that got away? In other words, things that you sold, you made, and never quite found their place but feel like perhaps they would work today or were ahead of their time? Are there any of them out there?

Peter Jankowsi:

You know, I tend not to look back, tend not to… If a show doesn’t work, it’s usually a reason, the audience didn’t like it usually. I mean, I feel a little sad about Phillip Winchester’s Chicago Justice, because I thought that was a very good show. It was performing, but NBC just sort of had a little bit too much of Chicago, I think. 

And, now that it’s off, I don’t lament it. We did two projects that come to mind. One is something called Players that starred Ice-T before he started working on SVU. And he was teamed with a guy by the name of Frank John Hughes and Kostas Mandylor. And they were street urchin thieves in New York, and they were… The FBI/police department kinda brought them in to solve some street crime. 

And the pilot was terrific. It was kind of a con on a con and it was Ice-T and it was great, and I thought it was gonna be a hit. And after we shot the pilot, the studio insisted that we move it from New York to Los Angeles to make it blue sky, which is a way of saying more appealing. And we totally fucked it up, because what took place in the streets of New York where people walk around and there’s an energy to the street, vertical thrust to the city, in Los Angeles, nobody walks around in Los Angeles.

I mean, you guys walk around on campus, but when you get out into the main part of the city, no one walks around. There’s no street life. And so we had to reinvent the characters for the series and it was just a disaster. It didn’t work. So we screwed that one up. 

The other thing that we did that never got the attention that I was hoping it would get, and it’s not a television show, it’s a documentary we did called When You’re Strange about The Doors. And it was a passion project. I thought it came out really well. And it did okay. You know, people saw it, we won a few awards. We actually got a Grammy from it, but it didn’t get any wide appeal. And that frustrated me because I thought it was a quality piece.

Kary Antholis:

One last question. What is the best piece of advice you ever got?

Peter Jankowsi:

I’m not sure I got this piece of advice from anybody. Well, there’s two. I got one from my dad and I will say the one I got from my dad is don’t do anything for money. Do it because you wanna do it and you’re passionate about it and the money will come. And it’s something I’ve always done in my life. It’s like, do what you wanna do. Do what makes you excited, which gets you to spend, you know, 12 hours a day at the office and someone will figure out how to pay you for it.

So there’s that. And then the other one that I just always live by is you got to work your ass off. I mean that’s what separates you. I mean, people, I think, have dreams of I’m gonna make it big in Hollywood and if I get it right… Well, you know what? If you get it right and you get lucky, sure. That’s gonna be an essential part of it. But if you don’t work hard, it doesn’t matter. You gotta make the luck. 

And I see a lot of people who don’t really work that hard, trying to make it. And it’s hard to find people who do work hard. I know it’s sort of a Christian-Judaeo ethic or whatever you call it, but working hard is in short supply.

Kary Antholis:

Please join me in thanking Peter Jankowsi.