Crime and punishment to flood fall TV offerings

Monday, June 17, 2002

NEW YORK -- Cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys. They're television staples, and they'll be flooding the airwaves this fall like no time in memory.

No less than 20 prime-time programs next season on the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox schedules fit under the canopy of crime and punishment -- including traditional cop shows, legal dramas or investigative mysteries.

Seven are new, including three that feature the busy police department in Los Angeles.

Some experts are already screaming: Overload!

"As is always the case, we kill the golden goose by trying to replicate success," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "This is a real problem. Every show is going to look the same."

Zucker need only look to his own network for some of the reasons why. The most successful crime shows are doing very well: "Law & Order," for example, had its best ratings ever this year even though it's been on the air for 12 seasons.

Its two spinoffs are also succeeding, with Friday night's "Law & Order: SVU" becoming a breakout hit this season.

CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" was this season's most popular network drama, the first time the medical show "ER" has been beaten in that category since it went on the air in 1994.

Next season CBS will make the spinoff, "CSI: Miami." Three of the other four new dramas on CBS' schedule in the fall fit this category: there's a crime-fighting cabbie, an FBI mystery and one of the aforementioned L.A. cop shows.

"'CSI' has been a big hit for us," said CBS President Leslie Moonves. "There's no question that influenced some of our thinking this year."

Arguably, the three sturdiest shows on struggling ABC's schedule are the venerable cop show "NYPD Blue," the legal drama "The Practice" and "Alias," about a young CIA agent.

The shows are nonfiction, but the most dependable night on Fox's schedule are Saturday night's "COPS" and "America's Most Wanted."

"When you look at the range of shows, to quote Dorothy Parker, they run the gamut from A to B," said "NYPD Blue" creator Steven Bochco. "That really is a function of the conservatism and fear of fresh programming that comes from vertical integration."

He means cautious networks buying shows from studios owned by the same companies, involving fewer people who might have new ideas.

In a system where roughly a third of new shows put on the air each year ever survive to a second season, executives will do everything they can to improve their chances by treading familiar ground.

Thus, you have a "CSI" spinoff starring former "NYPD Blue" actor David Caruso. You have the three "Law & Order" dramas. You have ABC remaking the old cop series, "Dragnet," and hiring "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf to do it.

Programmers are also counting more on dramas because it's a relatively fallow period for situation comedies. Television often runs in cycles, and few good new comedies have emerged the past few years.

Already, four of the new shows ordered for midseason, including "Dragnet," are crime and punishment-oriented. If a new cop show fails this fall, guess what it will probably be replaced with?

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