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Fall TV Preview

Wednesday night's battle of the brands

Cbs' New Spinoff 'Csi: Ny' Gets Down To Cases Against Nbc's Venerable Procedural, 'law & Order.'

September 05, 2004|Jonathan Taylor | Times Staff Writer

Never mind the dueling boxing shows on TV this fall. This season's battle royal promises to take place at 10 p.m. Wednesdays, when TV's two reigning crime brands will square off.

In one corner is "CSI: NY," the newest incarnation of the seemingly invincible forensic crime drama franchise from CBS. In the other is NBC's venerable "Law & Order," which, going into its 15th season, draws nearly 15 million viewers per week. In seasons past, "Law & Order" has made mincemeat of whatever CBS tossed into the ring, including TV movies as well as dramas like "Wolf Lake" and "Presidio Med."

CBS boss Leslie Moonves believes that in "CSI: NY" he's finally found a weapon to neutralize "Law & Order." But he carefully avoids predicting a total triumph for his show.

"Law & Order" has "dominated that time period for many years," says Moonves, co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, parent company of CBS. "We're not going to beat them. But we'll do our most significant number in that time period in more than two decades." CBS, in fact, hasn't won the time slot since "Wiseguy" aired there during the 1988-89 season.

Moonves' claims drew derision from "Law & Order" creator and executive producer Dick Wolf. "Les, in his usual masterful way, couldn't possibly, in my wildest imaginings, have set the bar lower for himself," Wolf says. "If it has eight more viewers [than the time period did last year], he'll claim victory." Wolf believes that Moonves is a lot more bullish about "CSI" than he lets on: "They fully expect to win the hour" in total viewers, he says.

Beneath all the posturing, the risks are high for both networks. The strength of "Law & Order" and two spinoffs -- "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" -- have given the NBC schedule a powerful boost, and that's particularly important now that the network finds itself without comedy hits like "Friends" and "Frasier." For midseason, NBC has ordered yet another spinoff, "Law & Order: Trial by Jury."

Meanwhile, improving the 10 p.m. slot is crucial for CBS because, as Moonves notes, it helps drive viewers to local news as well as "Late Show With David Letterman," which continues to struggle against NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." "CSI: NY" is topping viewer-awareness surveys of the new fall shows, typically a sign of healthy premiere numbers. The worry, of course, is that in launching a second spinoff, CBS might be squeezing the "CSI" franchise too hard and could end up draining viewers from the Thursday show and "CSI: Miami."

Programming analyst Steve Sternberg foresees a hard-fought battle for Wednesdays. "CBS will certainly dramatically improve the time period and cut into NBC's audience," says Sternberg, executive vice president and director of audience analysis at ad agency Magna Global USA. "So this contest will probably help CBS' weekly average ratings and hurt NBC's."

On the other hand, both networks could claim victories in some age categories, with "Law & Order" likely to skew somewhat older than "CSI: NY." "It's really a 50-50 proposition as to who will win" ultimately, Sternberg says.

All of which explains why Moonves dubs "CSI" "our most important [new] show and our most important franchise."

QUICK POPULARITY

CBS has handed control of this critical asset to Anthony E. Zuiker, a guy who seven years ago was driving a tram at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Zuiker wrote the script that became "CSI" after becoming fascinated with forensic science while watching a Court TV documentary with his wife.

The little-heralded procedural drama debuted on lightly watched Friday nights in October 2000. So quickly did it draw viewers that before that season was over, it moved into the hotbed of Thursday nights, where it is now the most-watched scripted show on TV.

Zuiker was eager to take his first crack at running a series, much of which will be shot on soundstages in Los Angeles, with occasional trips to New York for establishing shots and exterior scenes.

"It was time in my career to run things and see how good a producer I can be, how good a writer I can be," said Zuiker, 36, sitting in the spacious office on the Studio City back lot where the show is filmed. "Professionally, the chairman [as he refers to Moonves] said we're doing a third one, and me wanting to do my own show, it just sort of fit."

Zuiker, a burly man with a slightly graying goatee and mustache and an intense, rapid-fire style of speaking, points out that his new show doesn't simply mimic either of the previous "CSI" offerings.

For one thing, he lured veteran film actor Gary Sinise to take on his first TV series acting assignment. And in the most significant departure from "CSI's" signature style, "CSI: NY" will explore personal details of Sinise's Det. Mac Taylor, as well as of Taylor's partner, Det. Stella Bonasera, played by Melina Kanakaredes ("Providence").

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