NEWSPAPERS here recently carried stories about a young New York prosecutor who, playing a hunch about a series of rapes, steered detectives to her half-brother. Within a year, the incident will likely show up as a plot on the NBC-TV program ``Law & Order'' (Wednesdays, 10-11 p.m.).
The program often lifts plot ideas from the headlines. This season, for example, episodes have been loosely based on the murder of basketball star Michael Jordan's father last year, on a 1992 extortion scheme by New York State's then-chief justice, and on the violence between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. According to Michael Chernuchin, a producer and writer for the show, a future episode will pick up on the scandal involving figure skater Tonya Harding.
That device helps attract viewers. But the elements that really keep the swelling ranks of ``Law & Order'' buffs (which include at least one group of judges who meet every Thursday to discuss the previous night's episode) include:
* Skillful writing that takes plots in unexpected directions.
* The show's disciplined focus on the process of law enforcement and prosecution rather than on the lives of the characters.
* Paradoxically, distinctive characters whose professional actions reflect inner lives that have been fully developed by the actors.
* Tough-minded attention to the details of detectives' and prosecutors' work (technical advisers review all scripts), and the incorporation of cutting-edge developments in criminal law.
* A program about the aftermath and effects of violence that rarely depicts violence.
Most episodes - which take place and are filmed in New York City - begin with the discovery that a crime, often a murder, has been committed. During the first half hour, police detectives Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Mike Logan (Chris Noth), supervised by Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), investigate the crime and usually arrest a suspect; during the final 30 minutes, assistant district attorneys Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) and Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy), under the sardonic eye of DA Adam Schiff (Steven Hill), try to win a conviction.
In contrast to other current lawyer or cop shows such as ``L.A. Law'' and ``NYPD Blue,'' ``Law & Order'' discloses little about the characters' personal lives. For the main characters there are no love affairs, family problems, health emergencies, or angst - at least, no angst unassociated with the pressures of the job. There's just the painstaking work, carefully observed, of professionals dealing with life-and-death matters in a morally and ethically chaotic environment.
``I think our best episodes pose moral conundrums that are difficult to resolve, with the main characters on different sides,'' says Ed Sherin, co-executive producer.
``A lot of TV executives and critics were skeptical about the concept,'' says Mr. Chernuchin.
Indeed, network TV almost didn't buy the idea.
Dick Wolf, the show's creator and other executive producer, made a pilot for ``Law & Order'' that CBS rejected before NBC signed on in 1990.
But, Chernuchin, says, ``Dick Wolf stuck to his guns and proved them wrong.'' Asked if more ``soap opera'' would be introduced into the show in the future, Chernuchin - a lawyer - says: ``Not as long as I'm associated with the program.''
As it nears the end of its fourth season, the show's ratings ``are up, up, up,'' Mr. Sherin says. ``We often win our night, now.''
The show has garnered wide critical acclaim as well. And for their contribution to informing people about the legal system, ``Law & Order'' episodes won the American Bar Association's prestigious Silver Gavel Award in 1992 and '93.
Among the difficulties the show has weathered have been frequent cast changes. Mr. Orbach's Detective Briscoe is the third partner for Mr. Noth's Detective Logan. Both Ms. Merkerson and Ms. Hennessy are new this year, replacing fine character actors. And Mr. Moriarty - whose Ben Stone has been the show's moral center - will leave the cast at the end of the season next month. (Moriarty will be replaced next season by Sam Waterston, who played a federal prosecutor on the former NBC series ``I'll Fly Away.'')
The program has survived these difficult personnel transitions because it is ``story-driven, not character-driven,'' Sherin says. ``New people don't change the essence of the show.''
Yet in-depth character development is a vital element of the program's success, people associated with it emphasize. Orbach and Noth ``have gotten into the unconscious tissue of Briscoe and Logan,'' Sherin says, and Moriarty ``has lived Ben Stone's inner life; he's reached Stone's neural center.''
Sherin says this season's addition of the two female characters to a male-heavy ensemble was important to ``make it a show for the '90s.'' In a recent episode, Detective Logan and his boss, Lieutenant Van Buren, had a flareup over his alleged sexism; and Hennessy - who plays a prosecutor fresh from law school - says she hopes that next season will explore the challenges faced by a young woman in a macho profession.
After taping for the current season ends, says Sherin, the cast and production team will have a ``retreat'' in California to discuss plot and character developments for next season, which will begin in October.
``I've never known so much exchange of thought and openness to opposing views in this medium,'' Sherin says. ``It's more like the theater than network TV.''