New York Home To Twenty Year Production
Each fall, new television series are introduced to the viewing public. Some will succeed, and go on to last several seasons. Many others will fail, folding before a full season airs. “Law and Order” has not only defied the odds by reaching its 20th season this year, it’s also spawned a number of spin-off series. Executive Producer Peter Jankowski claims it’s the crew and writers that have been the driving force of the show’s longevity.
Jankowski was an executive working on the Universal Television’s development team when he was first introduced to "Law and Order" creator Dick Wolf.
"Back then, I was working on shows like ‘Coach’ and ‘Quantum Leap’ and ‘Northern Exposure;’ shows with a very different tone," said Jankowski. "When I met Dick Wolf, we hit it off, and Dick brought me over around 95, 96. I started working on ‘Law and Order,’ ‘SVU‘ was coming up, there was a show called ‘New York Undercover’ that Dick was cranking along on, and ‘Criminal Intent’ got added on soon thereafter."
Taking on the role of a series Executive Producer allowed Jankowski to discover a different kind of investment with a television series.
"I had been around ‘Law and Order’ since it went on the air, so it was not that big of a transitional bump," said Jankoswki. "When you are a studio executive, it’s difficult to get personally involved in the shows; there’s always another one coming down the pipe, there’s always another air time to be programmed. When you’re working on a show, you become that show’s biggest fan very quickly. The transition creatively wasn’t that big, but responsibility-wise, I was suddenly responsible with producing a show within budget, on time, making air dates, and trying to make all the personalities mesh together in a very productive way."
One of Jankowski key tasks involves hiring the show’s personnel.
"I keep an eye on the personnel, I keep the network and studio appraised and involved," said Jankowski. "Creatively I’m kind of the canary in the mind shaft. But, if you put the people together that are really doers, it makes my job incredibly easy."
Jankowski checks in with the site producers and directors of "Law and Order" and the various spin-offs to stay on top of all crew decisions. The goal of the production team is to retain the style of the show while occasionally revitalizing it.
"If a show is to remain healthy, it’s not a question of revolution it’s evolution," said Jankowski. "Stylistically this year, we went to high def beginning with ‘Criminal Intent.’ Our goal is to keep the look of the show identical to the film we use; we’re using a more visual way of shooting. High def also gives us more latitude in the post process."
Jankowski frequently flies to the New York locations to check in with the show directors: Ted Kotcheff (SVU) John Coles (Criminal Intent) and Fred Berner (Law and Order) and to make sure things are running smoothly on set. The series has remained in New York since its conception. Although the "Law and Order" series has not directly been affected by the recent changes in NY production incentives, they were affected when the incentives were initially put in place.
"When we started shooting ‘Law and Order’ and ‘SVU,’ there were very few shows shooting in New York," said Jankowski. "Then Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Katherine Oliver pushed through various tax credits, and suddenly it became a very competitive place to get crew and to get talented individuals. That has gotten trickier: finding the good people because they have more choices for employment. But, we’re there and we couldn’t be happier. The city is obviously a character in all of our shows."
Although Jankowski feels that New York and its infrastructure make it "The greatest city for shooting ever," one "Law and Order" spin-off is not shot in New York.
"Technically, ‘SVU ‘ is shot on stages in New Jersey," said Jankowski. "We did that because, at the time, it was very difficult to find stages that were available in Manhattan. We are still there, because once you build the sets, you hate to move them."
As with maintaining crew base, Jankowski also likes to keep talented writers on his staff.
"Everyone’s career changes, everyone has different interests and we know people may wonder off," said Jankowski. "When you find a terrific writer like René Balcer, who was a writer for many years then left and came back, and Walon Green who did the same thing, when you find writers like this, you want to hold on to them."
Although there is the desire for some consistency amongst the actors, the story driven shows allow for more frequent casting changes.
"’Criminal Intent’ was built around Vincent D’Onofrio," said Jankowski. "You want to have options for him contract-wise, you’re not going to want your key actors to leave the next year. He was really the essence for a very long time. The characters around Vincent changed; once in a while you want to freshen up around them. This season everyone including Vincent felt it was time for a change. Jeff Goldblum came in last year, and Vincent has these terrific first two episodes where he’s bidding the show farewell for a while."
Surprisingly, some day players can have a very fruitful run in the "Law and Order" franchise.
"There are people like Dylan Baker who’s shown up on all three shows from the very beginning," said Jankowski. "We have a band of ‘Law and Order’ players, because if you are a good actor in New York, we’re going to want to use you more than once."
With the ratings remaining high and "Law and Order" consistently recognized in the award circuit, Jankowski has one final word to say about the show’s success.
"Dick has a little plaque on his desk that says ‘It’s the writing, stupid.’ and it’s true, that’s where it all starts," said Jankowski. "We have terrific actors, terrific directors, terrific crew, and there’s a sense of unity and family with these shows. But without it on the page, you’ve got nothing. Awards are nice, it’s always great to be recognized by your peers. But if the audience doesn’t recognize what you have to offer, you wouldn’t be on the air."