Primetime crime rate rises

But too many police dramas could cause casualties in fall

Blame it on Dick Wolf.

The enduring success of the producer’s “Law & Order” franchise, combined with the impact of more recent smash “CSI,” has sparked a small- screen crime wave.

Almost half of the 15 new hourlong skeins the Big Four will roll out this fall are crime dramas, including entries from top-level feature talent like Jerry Bruckheimer (“Without a Trace”), Michael Mann (“Robbery Homicide Division”) and McG (“Fastlane”). Plus CBS is putting a true-crime emphasis on the newly reformatted newsmag “48 Hours Investigates.”

January will see the Wolf-led resurrection of one of the genre’s landmarks, “Dragnet,” as well as the sweeping drug-trade serial “Kingpin.”

Add in the three existing editions of “Law & Order,” the venerable “NYPD Blue,” solid hit “The District” and sophomore success “Crossing Jordan,” and primetime promises to be a gangsta’s paradise next season, with some sort of criminal activity flourishing in almost every 9 and 10 p.m. timeslot.

“It’s a staple of television,” Wolf says, noting crimeshows — like medical dramas — have always been popular because of what’s at stake in most episodes: “It’s life and death.”

Some industry wags are already concerned the crime rate may be getting too high. Just as the nets overdosed on reality shows and quizzers a few years ago, there’s a chance auds may be overwhelmed by the increasingly long arm of the law.

“I do worry there could be a glut,” says NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker. “They could all begin to look the same. But it’s what always happens in television when someone succeeds: You end up with three streetside, glass-enclosed studios or (a slew) of quizshows.”

Fact is, most of the new crime dramas will fail. But most first-year shows flunk out anyway — and webheads believe there are plenty of reasons why crime pays:

  • After Sept. 11, American audiences have a stronger-than-ever need to see criminals brought to justice.

    “There’s so much inequity in the world, so much fear, so much unpunished crime — it’s frightening and it enrages us,” says “NYPD Blue” creator Steven Bochco. “There’s a certain visceral desire for order, for answers, for solutions and even for vengeance, within the confines of the criminal justice system.”

  • Most crime dramas tend to be procedural in nature, with the action driven by self-contained storylines rather than character-focused arcs. That makes them easier to repeat, and — because there’s no need for a long-term commitment — attractive to a wider possible number of potential viewers.

    “The contemporary viewing audience isn’t as available as they once were,” says Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman. “These kinds of shows are easier for the audience to step in and step out of. They don’t have to watch every week to be satisfied.”

  • The genre’s pretty simple to understand and provides immediate gratification for auds.

    “You have clear heroes and villains, and a framework that’s understandable and easily acceptable,” says CBS drama development chief Nina Tassler.

  • While crimeshows don’t necessarily cost less to produce — and in cases such as Fox’s upcoming “Fastlane” can cost a bit more than standard fare — they have the potential to be cost-effective. Wolf’s “Law & Order” trilogy saves money by spreading the pricetag for sets and execs among three skeins; similar cost savings might be realized for the upcoming “CSI”/ “CSI: Miami” combo.

  • Scribes don’t have to look far to find inspiration for ideas.

    “Have you looked at a newspaper today? It’s a never-ending source of material,” Bochco says. “We can’t make up the (stuff) we put on.”

    The seemingly inexhaustible well of plot possibilities also allows shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” to remain fresh even in their second decades on the air. And the vast creativity of the criminal mind may also allow more than one of this fall’s new crop of crime dramas to succeed.

That’s the hope at CBS, where four of the net’s five new hours have a law-and-order bent. The Eye is betting heaviest on crime this fall, but net execs don’t think viewers will be turned off by a blur of black-and-white hats.

“From where we sit (in the TV industry), we may see a proliferation of crime dramas, but for the audience at large, I don’t think that’s the case,” Tassler says. “To the mass audience, I think it’s broken up in a patchwork quilt.”

For example, Tassler views the Eye’s missing-persons drama “Without a Trace” as a psychological thriller, while the ex-cop-turned-taxi-driver at the heart of “Hack” is more of a “Lone Ranger” type who helps the helpless.

Berman says Fox’s mandate requires it to “turn the crime drama genre on its ear,” resulting in “Fastlane” — an undercover cop drama that she says “is unlike anything else on the air.”

Similarly, Zucker says NBC’s “Boomtown” will benefit from its unique storytelling style, where a plot unfolds “Rashomon”-like through the eyes of several main characters.

Even “CSI: Miami,” while no doubt sharing much in common with the original “CSI,” will have its own distinct identity, producers say.

“The character of the city of Miami is going to dictate a lot of stories,” says exec producer Ann Donahue. “And David Caruso’s character is going to be 180 degrees from Billy Petersen. He won’t spend a lot of time studying bugs.”

“CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker compares the primetime proliferation of crime dramas to the recent building boom that has spurred the creation of more than a dozen new megaresorts in his hometown of Las Vegas.

“They keep building the casinos, and the people keep filling them,” Zuicker says. “As long as the shows are good, it’s great for television.”

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