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Why it's always crime time on TV

A slew of new law-and-order dramas ordered up by the TV networks show the genre's enduring appeal.

By Staff writer / May 26, 2010

Kiefer Sutherland, as Jack Bauer defends himself on a recent episode of ‘24,’ now in its final season.

Richard Foreman/FOX

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Pasadena, Calif.

Bang-bang, we're not dead yet. That's the message sounding from the broadcast television network executives who are selling their new shows to advertisers May 17 through May 20 in Manhattan – a schedule front-loaded with one of the genre's trustiest staples, the law-and-order procedural. From college-age backpackers working as CIA spies abroad to remakes of two TV classics, "The Rockford Files" and "Hawaii Five-O," 29 of the 37 primetime drama pilots commissioned by the networks are some form of crime, cop, or conspiracy caper.

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This embrace of small-screen sleuthing – at a time when many media pundits, including NBC executives themselves, have dubbed the old broadcast television model dead on arrival – reflects what popular culture expert Robert Thompson calls basic laws of entertainment dynamics.

"If it works, you keep making it," says the Syracuse University professor, adding that anybody who says that the old network TV era is over "just isn't paying attention.

"With all the genuflection to new media, people are watching just as much regular TV as they ever did," Professor Thompson says. "They may also be surfing the Internet, but the number of hours in front of regular TV has not gone down, it's even gone up an hour or two."

As the networks expand their reach into multimedia platforms such as and partner with cable outlets, crime shows are good business, says Mediaweek's Marc Berman. He points out that self-contained shows with a beginning, middle, and end sell well in US syndication, and action-packed programs do well overseas. Crime shows also tend to appeal to older audiences, and as networks struggle to hold onto younger viewers it makes sense to cement an older boomer demographic that flocks to shows with nostalgic appeal.

"I call these shows 'television comfort food,' " says Mr. Berman. "They've been around since the dawn of radio and television in some form, and everyone likes them. Audiences like to see justice served."

Over at NBC, the fourth-place network still reeling from its failed attempt to remake the 10 p.m. time slot as the home of "The Jay Leno Show," the strategy is clear. Five of the eight new pilots are crime-­related. Home to television's venerable and now canceled "Law & Order," which began during the first Bush presidency, the Peacock network has commissioned yet another spinoff of the 20-year-old mother ship – this one set in Los Angeles, mimicking CBS's strategy last fall when it made an L.A. version of its successful military crime show, "NCIS." That show, "NCIS: Los Angeles" was one of the top-rated new shows of the past year. NBC is also working to produce an American version of the hit British detective series, "Prime Suspect."

"For us right now," says Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, addressing reporters this past January in the wake of the Leno debacle, "instead of trying to reinvent, going back to basics is probably the smartest play."