June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

His is the biggest, longest-running, most successful crime wave ever to hit TV. It’s been 14 seasons (and counting!) of the original ”Law & Order,” and ”Dick Wolf” has a fourth ”L&O” series in the works for early 2005, ”Law & Order: Trial by Jury.” With his real-life court show, ”Crime & Punishment,” beginning its third season on NBC June 12, it’s a good time to bring in the criminal mastermind for some questioning. Anything Wolf says can and will be used against him…not that he particularly seems to care.

Are other producers trying to copy your Law & Order formula?

Jerry [Bruckheimer, exec producer of ‘CSI’] made no bones about it. He looked at ‘Law & Order’ and said, ”Why can’t I do that?” But there is still a difference. ‘Law & Order’ is a brand, not a franchise. It’s the Mercedes of television. The cars are very different, but if you buy a Mercedes, you’re still getting a good car. ‘CSI’ is a franchise — like the Palm Restaurant. ‘CSI’ is the same show set in different cities, while the ‘Law & Order’ shows are all very different from each other. It’s the first time in a long time that we have a real contender up against us, but my attitude is, Bring it on!

Are you using the formula in your next show, Law & Order: Trial by Jury?

You’re going to know it’s a ‘Law & Order’ show — it’ll have the ching ching — but it’s going to have a different point of view. In the other three, things were always seen from law enforcement’s perspective. In this one, it’s an omniscient camera — the perspective shifts from scene to scene. And there will be familiar faces, like Jerry Orbach’s.

Was Orbach’s departure from Law & Order voluntary?

Yes. His character on ‘L&O’ is three years beyond mandatory retirement age of the NYPD. The transfer [to the new series] works because the DA’s office in New York actually has a squad of detectives composed of both active-duty and retired detectives.

You were one of the first producers to recast stars who demanded large salary increases.

[Laughs] It’s really not a negative for my reputation. I want actors to be happy, but I don’t want to have a cocked and locked .45 pointed between my eyes.

If cast members on your show had banded together for raises, like on Friends or The West Wing, what would you have done?

I would have told [the ‘Friends’ cast] negotiations take place between professionals off the radar and we’re not going to be held hostage. The thing to do was to pick whichever of the six you might have chosen at that period of the show — Actor X — and say that Actor X will not be appearing on the show next year. I guarantee you the others would have folded.

Ratings have been down on all your shows this year. Is there such a thing as too many Law & Orders?

I know, ‘Law & Order: Parking Violation.’ I can’t be overly defensive because obviously we’re keeping a lot of people happy every week. The shows are down less than the network average and less than the television average. They’ve turned TNT and USA into the No. 1 and No. 2 networks on cable [in viewers ages 18 to 49].

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