In TV's prime time, it's (almost) all crime, all the time

Police procedurals just keep coming, especially on CBS and cable channels


July 10, 2005|By Manuel Mendoza | Manuel Mendoza,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Crime TV is on the rise.

The police procedural genre has all but taken over TV dramas, and not just on the major broadcast networks. Cable channels are increasingly feasting on serial killers and other gruesome crime stories, while CBS has come to rely on procedural dramas for half of its prime-time schedule.

Last season, a third of the Top 40 shows on television were procedurals, loosely defined as programs that depict a crime each week and solve it. Most of the other top-rated programs were reality shows or comedies, with only six dramas having nothing to do with crime making the list.

"So far, there's no end in sight for the audience's appetite for these shows," says CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl. "It's hard to argue with where these shows rank."

NBC, however, appears to be pulling back. The network has canceled a fourth Law & Order series, subtitled Trial by Jury, and also the long-running Third Watch and hasn't added any new procedurals to its fall schedule. Taking their place are shows with sci-fi premises inspired by the success of ABC's smash, Lost.

"Right now, we could be seeing the pendulum swing back just a little bit because the two big out-of-the-box hits this past year, Lost and Desperate Housewives, were extremely serialized," says Ted Frank, NBC's executive vice president of current series. "At a time when there are so many procedurals on the air, you have to be thinking of ways to bring in other kinds of dramas."

The latest procedural, TNT's The Closer, is a huge hit. Its premiere a week ago drew 7 million viewers, the largest audience ever for a basic cable drama series. And when TNT introduces another drama next month, it also will concern cops and robbers: Wanted, about a squad hunting down fugitives in Los Angeles.

Credit top-rated CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Focused on forensics, the gritty CBS series sparked this wave of crime shows when it launched five years ago.

One season earlier, 1999-2000, only three procedurals were Top 40 hits, including two editions of NBC's Law & Order, once the standard bearer of the modern crime series.

Now there are three Law & Orders and three CSIs on the air, and the concentration at NBC and CBS doesn't end there. NBC also has Crossing Jordan and Medium while CBS counters with Cold Case, Without a Trace, NCIS and Numb3rs.

This fall, CBS is adding two new procedurals to its lineup: Criminal Minds, starring Mandy Patinkin as a cop trying to get inside the heads of twisted killers, and Close to Home, about a suburban mom who prosecutes heinous crimes committed in her neighborhood. In addition, the network is giving over two prime-time hours on Saturdays to crime TV reruns, adding up to 11 hours of procedurals in a 22-hour schedule.

"With the introduction of CSI, here was a whole new way to look at a procedural crime drama, and that opened the door for other devices and other ways of telling crime stories," CBS' Kahl says. "That's part of the reason we don't think we're overdoing it. Each of our shows has a different twist."

Mysteries and maggots

So who's watching and why?

"The easy answer is women love mysteries and men love maggots," says Ann Donahue, an executive producer on all three CSIs who's in charge of CSI: Miami. "Most shows you get one or the other. We have it all."

ABC and Fox, which had no true procedurals last season, are just getting into the game. Each has produced two new crime shows. Fox has a CSI-like entry called Bones, revolving around a forensic anthropologist, and The Gate, set in San Francisco's deviant-crime squad. ABC is waiting until midseason to unleash The Evidence, based on the dissection of clues, and In Justice, a kind of procedural in reverse as the protagonist works to free the wrongly convicted.

"Pick up a newspaper. Pick up a magazine. The radio. Local news. Television is just one of the mediums that tend to gravitate toward the world of crime," says Craig Erwich, Fox's executive vice president of programming. "People have an interest in it."

Yet the high interest in crime TV runs counter to the national violent-crime rate, which has dropped more than 50 percent since the early 1970s and is at its lowest point since the FBI started keeping track.

"But fear is up," says Michael Wright, TNT's senior vice president of original programming. "It seems as if we live in a more dangerous world. Terrorism especially is such an unformed, unknowable, inaccessible sort of fear."

The media certainly have had a hand in that. Never has there been so much crime and terror reporting, from accounts on the Internet and the 24-hour cable-news networks to such reality-based shows as COPS and America's Most Wanted to "Amber Alerts."

"We want certainty, and crime shows give us certainty with bad guys getting caught," says Dr. Neal Baer, executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

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