Several years ago, researchers at Washington State University sent out a survey to freshmen, asking about their views on sexual assault. In the same survey, they asked the students what crime shows they watched on TV.
Their findings, published in 2015, indicated that, for many students, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit may have provided an education of its own. The survey found that the NBC show had an overall positive effect on students’ understanding of consent and sexual assault — issues which many universities have been grappling with for years.
While the researchers couldn’t prove causation, they found that students who watched the show "were less likely to buy into rape myths, more likely to adhere to their partner’s decision about whether or not to have sex, and more likely to say no themselves to sexual activity they did not want," the Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera reported.
Now, the show’s creators, Dick Wolf and Warren Leight, are taking on another topic that’s plucked from the headlines — and likely to lead to controversy. Law & Order: Hate Crimes will air on NBC at a yet-to-be-determined date, the network announced Tuesday.
In a statement, Wolf credited SVU for starting conversations about rape and sexual assault, and expressed hope that the spinoff would have a similar effect.
"Twenty years ago when SVU began, very few people felt comfortable coming forward and reporting these crimes," he said, "but when you bring the stories into people’s living rooms — with characters as empathetic as Olivia Benson — a real dialogue can begin. That’s what I hope we can do with this new show in a world where hate crimes have reached an egregious level."
In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Lisa Katz, co-president of scripted programming at NBC Entertainment, called the spinoff "extremely timely."
"Considering that last year there was a double-digit rise in hate crimes in our 10 largest cities — the highest total in over a decade — it seemed like this topic is begging to be explored," she said, likely referring to a May report released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. That study found a 12 percent increase in hate crimes reported in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago between 2016 and 2017.
In both 2015 and 2016, the FBI saw an increase in the number of hate crimes reported to law enforcement, with a significant uptick in the number of incidents targeting Jews, Muslims and the LGBT community. Since submitting data on hate crimes to the FBI is entirely voluntary for police departments, however, those numbers don’t present a full picture of the number of bias crimes taking place across the country.
As flawed as the statistics may be, there’s no question that hate crimes have been appearing in the headlines with some regularity. In the summer, Nazi symbols were found outside a synagogue in Indiana, a California woman allegedly beat a 91-year-old Mexican man with a brick and told him to go back to his country, and Egyptian exchange students were allegedly attacked at a McDonald’s in St. Augustine and told that they didn’t "deserve American food."
The series will be based on the New York Police Department’s real-life Hate Crimes Task Force, one of the oldest in the country. It will feature the stories of "an elite, specially trained team of investigators" who "stop at nothing to bring these criminals to justice," NBC said.
Wolf said in a statement that his goal for the series was to "depict what’s really going on in our cities and shine a light on the wide-ranging victims and show that justice can prevail."
The spin-off has already faced some preemptive criticism, based on the assumption that minorities who are already underrepresented in television will be cast in a "victim" role. (NBC has yet to make any announcements about the show’s casting, but Wolf and Leight, the creators, are both white men.)
Other skeptics have expressed a lack of interest in watching a show based on a reality that’s already too familiar to many marginalized communities.
"Why would I watch a fictitious show when I can turn on my … tv every day and see it in reality!?!" wrote one Twitter user.
Die-hard SVU fans, on the other hand, are thrilled to be getting even more Law & Order episodes to binge-watch. "NBC has picked up Law & Order: Hate Crimes. Make all the jokes you want, but I’m ready for this. Dick Wolf is slowly but surely taking over my TV life," Emily Longeretta wrote on Twitter.
Though NBC has not announced when Law & Order: Hate Crimes will begin airing, the Hollywood Reporter speculates that it will most likely premiere "sometime in 2019." NBC has made a 13-episode commitment to the new series, which will be introduced to viewers during an episode of SVU’s upcoming 20th season.