By MANUEL MENDOZA
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
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 & amp; 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 new drama next month, it'll also 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 new 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 & amp; Order," once the standard bearer of the modern crime series.
Now there are three "Law & amp; 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."
And 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."
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."
Hopping on the bandwagon
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 mid-season 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, whether it's wondering what makes people do it to wondering about their own safety. There's probably something very primal about it."
Yet the high interest in crime TV contradicts the national violent-crime rate, which has dropped by 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. It's not like I imagine it might have been in a different era, when you feared a break-in or a robbery."
Blame the media. 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 & amp; Order: Special Victims Unit."
But the medical doctor-turned-writer also believes the procedurals phenomenon has peaked. "Things get used and used and used, and then they become clich & eacute;s. I think that's where we're headed," he says. "I would predict not many crime shows will do well next season."
Of course, crime dramas aren't new, having been a TV staple for decades. "Dragnet," the '50s and '60s show that fathered the procedural, started on radio in 1949.
The 1960s and '70s were an especially fertile period for crime dramas. Take 1977, when the three-network universe offered "Kojak," "Police Woman," "Charlie's Angels," "Baretta," "Hawaii Five-O," "Barnaby Jones," "CHiPs," "Switch," "Rockford Files," "Starsky and Hutch" and "Quincy, M.E.," the "CSI" of its day.
"It goes back to 'Perry Mason' and 'Mannix' and 'Cannon,'" NBC's Frank says.
Still, there was no era with the nearly dozen hours of procedurals that will air this fall. What has also changed is their nature and style, taking cues mainly from viscous-heavy "CSI." A rerun last week, for instance, dealt with death by high heel to the jugular, sex by torture and pierced genitalia, all in an hour.
"These crime shows, I will not watch them," says Rachel Weingarten, president of a New York marketing firm that nonetheless has helped promote procedurals. "I don't find mass murder to be entertaining, even if it's just a TV show."
She recalls a promotion her GTK Marketing Group put together for a crime show she declines to name. "The network kept telling us to get grosser, to the extent of putting body bags on the street."
Still, Weingarten realizes there's a curiosity factor for viewers. Most procedurals have to be watched closely because they're so thickly plotted, even if some plots are hokum passing for science. "Viewers are more sophisticated," she says. "People want to understand. People research their own medical conditions. People research crime. We are definitely more educated consumers and viewers."
For example, the "Law & amp; Orders" are as straightforwardly melodramatic, almost quaint, as the "CSIs" are graphic and wry. Others, like "The Closer," are more character-driven. "Bones," one of the more interesting new fall entries, takes off from "CSI" but adds a reluctant heroine and skepticism toward microscopic evidence.
For viewers, procedurals offer comfort or escapism, a fun way to spend an hour without worrying about next week because the episodes tend to be self-contained. And the networks like them because they repeat well and are more lucrative in syndication than serialized dramas.
Weingarten thinks the procedurals are the ultimate escape from real worries. "We're unsure about the economy. Maybe we can't afford a house. Things are pretty scary abroad. We have terrorism," she says. "Maybe these shows scare us in a good way, and we don't have to deal with that other stuff."