New dramas pave way to Letterman

September 23, 2002|By Bill Carter | Bill Carter,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

What more could David Letterman want?

For years Letterman has berated CBS program executives for the network's lackluster lineup of 10 p.m. shows, complaining - both on the air and off - that the ratings-impaired lead-ins left him at a disadvantage to Jay Leno's Tonight show on NBC.

But this year, CBS is challenging NBC's long-time dominance in the 10 p.m. time slot with its strongest slate of shows in years.

The showdown of the two networks begins tonight. CBS is aiming at what it considers the soft underbelly of the NBC 10 p.m. lineup - a second-year drama called Crossing Jordan - with CSI: Miami, a spinoff of TV's biggest hit of recent seasons, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The campaign continues on Thursday night, when CBS will take its most serious shot at challenging NBC's most unassailable hit, ER. The network has scheduled in that time slot another well-regarded new series, Without a Trace, a missing-person series whose timing, after a summer of missing children stories, could not be more fortuitous.

And in the last couple of weeks there have even been a few faint whispers around CBS that a new Friday drama called Robbery Homicide Division, about that unit of the Los Angeles police, could inflict some damage on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

CBS is also trying to elevate the quality of its stations' 11 p.m. newscasts to make them more competitive with NBC's.

Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment, said he was not worried by CBS' challenge at 10 p.m. or Leno's ability to beat Letterman.

"The late-night race has been settled long ago," Zucker said. "Jay has been and will continue to be the choice of America."

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