NEW YORK (AP) — That familiar “cha-CHUNG” sound effect from the opening credits of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” this Thursday will signal the debut of a new season and something else — TV history.
The show’s 21st season launch makes it the longest running prime-time live-action series in U.S. TV history and will finally fulfill a goal that eluded show creator Dick Wolf nine years ago with the original “Law & Order.”
His hope now? Twenty-five seasons, of course. “You keep pushing the goal posts back because you don’t get dealt these hands very often, obviously,” Wolf told The Associated Press. “It’s a continuous thrill to be able to do it.”
The Mariska Hargitay-led “SVU” now pulls ahead of “Gunsmoke” and the original “Law & Order,” which are tied with 20. (“Gunsmoke” still has more total number of episodes, while “The Simpsons,” an animated prime-time series, exceeds them both.)
The new record is a feather in the cap for a towering figure in TV history, who last year alone produced five shows that attracted 50 million viewers. More than 150 billion minutes were viewed of “SVU” alone, shown on NBC, USA, ION and Hulu. When everyone’s talking about streaming, he’s still a network guy.
“The brilliance of Dick Wolf is that he still does appreciate and value the power of broadcast television,” said George Cheeks, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. “He sees the digital experience as an extension of the way to tell stories but launching them on a broadcast network is the anchor that allows other platforms and other ways for people to experience this content.”
Wolf was a New York ad man who left the business in 1976 and moved to Los Angeles to write scripts. He joined the writing team of the revered “Hill Street Blues” and then raised eyebrows when he jumped to the moody, unpredictable “Miami Vice.”
“A lot of people said, ‘How can you go from the best show on television to a cartoon?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s a new era,’” he said. “The stories weren’t ripped from the headline but ripped from the zeitgeist.”
Since then, he’s created a staggering amount of TV. Some didn’t last — like “Mann & Machine,” featuring a robot cop — but he struck gold with “Law & Order,” which sparked spinoffs such as “SVU,” “Criminal Intent,” “Trial by Jury” and versions set in the United Kingdom and Los Angeles.
Wolf has also created the so-called TV three-stack — filling Wednesday nights on NBC with back-to-back-to-back hours of “Chicago” dramas, featuring police, doctors and firefighters. “It’s a mini-binge,” Wolf said. “I think it’s a repeatable formula.” (His output also includes the procedural “FBI” on CBS and its upcoming spinoff “Most Wanted.”)