Absence does make the heart grow fonder as viewers have welcomed the return of the broadcast scripted series after a long delay due to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Ratings have been strong all around, including for all nine Wolf Entertainment procedurals from Universal Television, the Law & Order and Chicago franchises at NBC and the FBI trio at CBS as well CBS/UTV’s The Equalizer. The Chicagos and the Law & Orders all opened their new seasons up by double digits in both total viewers and adults 18-49 from their final four episodes last season. The premieres of FBIs and Equalizer ranked in the Top 13 most watched primetime programs the week of Feb. 12, all up or on par with the most recent episodes last season.

In an interview with Deadline, Universal Television President Erin Underhill spoke of the uncertainty — and anxiety — within the industry about how scripted series would perform after the strike-related delay and gave her assessment as to why the procedurals did so well in their return.

The Chicago and Law & Order series debuted their new seasons in mid-January, three months after the end of the WGA strike and two months after the end of the SAG-AFTRA stoppage. Underhill described the “mad dash” to get the shows on the air through the holiday season as writers rooms opened just a couple of days after the WGA strike.

She also addressed the frequent cast changes on Wolf series, the upcoming renewals of all ten procedurals and the prospects of NBC’s Quantum Leap, which just wrapped its second season heavily on the bubble.

Universal TV has one NBC drama pilot, Jenna Bans and Bill Krebs’ Grosse Pointe Garden Society, which is not really a procedural but Underhill teased a pending NBC pickup for a true procedural and shared whether Dick Wolf could expand his broadcast portfolio to four procedural franchises.

DEADLINE: What kind of expectations did you have at the studio and what did you think about the UTV procedurals coming back either on par or higher than the season finales last year?

UNDERHILL: We were beyond happy. We’ve heard so much chatter about the decline in broadcast. And so the fact that all of the UTV crime procedurals returned to either their ratings from the previous season or in some cases, actually higher than where they ended the previous season, was a huge victory in our minds.

And the fact that we have nine Wolf shows, and that those grew their audiences by double-digit percentages from where they left off is truly a feat in a time where we’re coming on the heels of a strike and we had to really scramble and get the scripts written, the episodes prepped, shot, edited and on the air. It just speaks to the team effort across the board, from the producers to my studio team, working 24/7 to deliver these shows to the audience.

DEADLINE: Can you share more about the logistics of how you were able to get the Wolf NBC series on the air in mid-January, about a month ahead of any other returning broadcast scripted series? Did you even break for the holidays?

UNDERHILL: For the holidays, we definitely took a break. But I think what it really stems from is the fact that the team that we have assembled, both the studio team here and obviously the show writers and the producers that make the shows, the crew if you will, they have an expertise in this because the Dick Wolf empire, it’s folks who have such a keen sense of what has to get accomplished.

It’s a well oiled machine, I think that’s pretty widely known, and I think this task showed everyone — as opposed to just telling people — that it’s a well oiled machine by being able to get these scripts and these stories broken and written up and shot and edited and on the air.

I feel like it was a mad dash. I’m not saying people didn’t work weekends. My team worked weekends because we would get a script in oftentimes on a Friday or Saturday and we would drop anything to read it and we would literally turn around notes within 24 hours, because we knew how hand to mouth everybody was with the material and how our response time was going to be vital to giving the writers the time they needed to make the adjustments and then get the scripts out into the actors hands to learn the lines, etc, etc. So it is like that domino effect and everyone had to pull their weight and then some, and it’s just fantastic to see when the whole team comes together and rows in the same direction what we can accomplish.

DEADLINE: You didn’t have any scripts banked, so this was starting from zero, right?

UNDERHILL: This is from ground zero. So yes, we hit the ground running when the strike ended and material came fast and furiously.

DEADLINE: Why do you think have the ratings been held up so well? Was it extra anticipation created by the delay due to the strikes?

UNDERHILL: I think for me, I’m speaking of myself as a viewer, I think people love this sense of reliable storytelling for audiences. You know you’re coming to something where you’re going to get a beginning, middle and end, and it’s going to get wrapped up. I think there’s real comfort knowing you can tune into an episode that feels self-contained, get to know the characters quickly and enjoy the story when justice is doled out at the end of that hour.

And I think also they’re well told stories. The quality of these procedurals that UTV produces, I think they rival any show, let alone any procedural out there, they’re just so well done. And it starts with the written word and the team of writers who do the research and find these really compelling stories to tell and they do so beautifully.

I also think people are really busy, and I think they like knowing that if they missed one week, they can pop in week two and be just as engaged, just as satisfied, just as riveted but don’t feel that time commitment, oh, I missed the last one, I have to go back and watch that before I watch it. So there’s that flexibility in viewing as well, which I think was a plus.

DEADLINE: The procedurals’ nature of close-ended storytelling has been part of their ratings resilience. Maybe the fact that viewers could go into new episodes nine months after the previous season finales not having to remember any deep mythology helped get people tune in after the long break.

UNDERHILL: I do think that’s definitely part of it as well, they know that they’re going to get a satisfying 43-44 minutes of television, and that it’s going to hold their attention because these stories move at such a quick clip. There’s such pace to the narrative that it draws you in from get go and then you’re off and running in terms of whodunnit and asking will they get convicted if it’s a Law & Order.

DEADLINE: We have written a lot about the pressure on TV budgets, with some network dramas being made for as low as $3M-$4M an episode. That’s another thing Dick Wolf is known for, producing efficiently. Is this part of why you think so many Wolf shows have been around for so long?

UNDERHILL: I think you hit the nail on the head. When you look at something like SVU which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, which is unbelievable in this business today, you look at the price point and it’s quite remarkable. They are very disciplined in terms of how they spend their money. The money is on the screen, that is for sure.

I’m always in awe of how they’re able to accomplish what they can accomplish in terms of the scope of these episodes, knowing what the bottom line number is. That’s where they have the infrastructure that they can use some flexibility if you will and really lean on that Wolf machine to get what they need and to get it quickly and to get it at a price point and also to get it so it looks fantastic. Because we’re lucky to work with, I would personally say the best in the business, be it from these episodic directors and the writing team that knows how to write to scope but at the same time, the realities of what they’re going to be able to grab when they’re out in the streets of New York or Chicago.

DEADLINE: Another thing Wolf series are known for are cast changes. SVU is different, it is Mariska Hargitay’s show, but for the others, it’s more about the franchise than it is about the casts which are tweaked every season, with leads sometimes departing. The shows have carried on and continue to do well. Why is that and why are there so many casting changes?

UNDERHILL: Well, I think to some degree, yes, there have been casting changes but there’s also so many tried and true characters that have been with these shows. Chicago Fire has so many of the original cast and many of the other shows. Sam Waterston coming back to Law & Order was a great get, and I think fans loved that.

So I think it’s twofold. First and foremost, television is about characters, and I think the Wolf team does a good job of balancing, bringing in fresh faces but also knowing that they want to serve the core fan base with the series regulars that don’t leave after a season or two and trying to create some consistency.

But I think ultimately these stories and the way they’re built, really, they are the procedural so they’re about the case. It’s a hybrid, it’s character and case, and I think being able to create stories that are so compelling, the audience might be a little more open to new faces from time to time. But I don’t think it’s lost on us at the studio or the Wolf team that it’s important to find that balance and make sure that you are keeping the key characters that people are really connected to and feel a tremendous affection for.

Back in the day I worked on ER as a current executive, and we would do the same thing with ER. We would bring in and refresh the cast from time to time because when these shows go as long as the Wolf shows do, you have to approach it like development, you have to continue to breathe new life into them to keep it interesting, to keep people feeling like oh, it’s not that stale old show, it feels fresh. A little like a tweak in the foundation, if you will.

DEADLINE: The solid ratings start for the procedurals come at an opportune time as the upfronts are just around the corner. You are facing renewal negotiation with CBS where the previous four-show, two-year deal came after some tense conversations. What do you expect this time? You also have the Chicago and Law & Order series up for renewal at NBC. What can you tell us about the status of renewal talks?

UNDERHILL: Well, we are in early discussions and I feel really helpful. I know how much the CBS brass value the Wolf shows and Equalizer. We have a very good working relationship, they obviously co-produce those shows with us, as well with CBS Studios. So I’m very optimistic that there will be a path forward for another season.

And the same here at NBC. Obviously, all one company but still, there’s always some difference of opinions that have to be worked through. That’s the case in any negotiation in my mind, but everyone sees the tremendous value that these procedurals bring to the airwaves, into the ratings and into the bottom line. And so I am optimistic that we’re going to close these deals and we’ll be making some more procedurals this summer for a fall launch.

DEADLINE: Have you started talks with both networks already?

UNDERHILL: I think it’s probably a little premature to talk about that. I think the spirit of collaboration and teamwork is there and then everyone’s mindset is that we talk about the future of these series.

DEADLINE: Dick Wolf has nine series over three broadcast procedural franchises. I think he has hinted that his goal is 4 franchises, 12 shows. Has he pitched another franchise? Does he have one more big procedural franchise in him you think?

UNDERHILL: First of all, I definitely believe he has other franchises and I have no doubt that man, I think his brain never shuts off. He is always creating and thinking about what’s next. I 100% believe that there will be more ideas to come about, another stack, another franchise. Nothing concrete at the moment, but like I said, it’s Dick Wolf. his track record speaks for itself.

DEADLINE: Staying in the procedural realm, what are your thoughts about the two newer UTV series introduced by NBC, The Irrational and Quantum Leap, and what are your hopes for the new crop of development you have at NBC this year?

UNDERHIL: As far as the new crop of development, we just got Grosse Pointe but that is not a procedural. I think we are hoping that we’ll be receiving good news soon on something that is definitely a procedural to add to the roster at NBC. I have high hopes for that.

In terms of Quantum and The Irrational, those are two shows that I know NBC very much values. The Irrational has been doing quite well, obviously, we’re working on Season 2 right now. It debuted very, very well for NBC so I am optimistic that when Season 2 returns, it will be just as strong if not stronger, because in that first season you’re really finding the voice of the show, and it’s apparent to me now, having read some of the scripts for Season 2, that it’s hitting its stride. Time will tell but I feel like we have a good lineup ready to deliver to NBC in the procedural realm.

DEADLINE: What about Quantum Leap, which is on the bubble. Do you have hopes that the show will continue?

UNDERGILL: The way that they wrapped that up is it could be a satisfying ending but they also could continue on so I think we’re going to be waiting to hear feedback from NBC as we approach the May upfront as to what the status is.

Like always, I think it’s going to depend on their development and how they’re feeling about the pilots that come in and where Quantum would potentially go on the schedule. But I think everyone has a lot of support for that show and big fan base in terms of that being a major library title for us. So we’re optimistic but we won’t know anything with certainty until I think probably April.

DEADLINE: You mentioned that Grosse Pointe is a little bit of a departure but procedurals seem to be UTV’s bread of butter. Are they 90% of your drama business as a studio on the broadcast side?

UNDERHILL: As a studio, I would say, about 40% of our shows live outside of NBC and Peacock, 60% is internal. But in terms of what we have in a linear broadcast space, yes, the vast majority of what seems to be really working and what what buyers are responding to, are those shows that have a beginning middle and end to them.

It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be a doctor, lawyer, cop 100% because The Irrational is a little bit outside that box, but it still has that investigative element, and beginning, middle and end but also with some nice character shading throughout.

So it’s a blend, that one in particular, but I do think overall that is what has been resonating with the audience, and I think in terms of Grosse Pointe Garden Society, I think NBC is trying to zig where people are zagging, just something that feels a little fresh and different. But even that show will have episodic stories. I feel like there’s bite sized meals, if you will, per episode, while servicing the larger serialized mystery.

DEADLINE: Based on UTV’s dramas’ performance, what are your expectations going forward?

UNDERHILL: We were really excited and pleased to see the strength of the Universal Television procedurals returning. I think everyone was not sure how these series would be received given the strikes and given how long it had been since we’d had original programming on but it’s certainly just reinforced that storytelling and good storytelling is in high demand, whether that’s linear or nonlinear. So we feel great and really optimistic about the season ahead and the season to come.

UTV’s FBI dramas air new episodes tonight, followed by One Chicago tomorrow, the Law & Order lineup Thursday and The Equalizer Sunday.

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