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Given the choice between Hollywood’s version of reality and a network news division’s, television viewers are taking a clear stand this summer. Last month’s debut of NBC’s “Crime & Punishment,” the latest addition to “Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf’s stable of criminal justice stories, drew 11 million viewers and was among the 10 most popular shows of the week. When ABC News’ “State v.” bowed four days later, it had 5.9 million viewers and was nowhere near the top 10. The second week’s numbers were closer: NBC at 8.2 million, ABC at 6.3 million. Hollywood wins, hands down. There are several reasons why two series with essentially the same premise — a depiction of real-life criminal trials using fictional storytelling techniques — have divergent fortunes. Many have nothing to do with quality. Yet it’s made for a lively rivalry, with creators on both sides sniping like defense lawyers and prosecutors during cross-examination. “The acronym for news is that nobody ever watches,” Wolf said. Ouch! “I don’t feel we have to manipulate the audience in any way because our material is compelling enough,” said Phyllis McGrady, the ABC executive in charge of “State v.” Double ouch! The competition is intriguing because it may influence how television tells such stories in the future. People at ABC News were privately miffed this spring when the network’s entertainment division made a series about the war on terrorism with the military’s cooperation at a time journalists sought better access. In a savvy, and inescapable, marketing strategy, NBC closely aligned “Crime & Punishment” with the “Law & Order” franchise. The new series has the same graphics, the same gavel sound effect. All of the on-air promotions make the “Law & Order” connection clear. Might a network’s entertainment division — responsible for all prime-time promotions — work a little harder for one of its own shows? “Maybe subliminally,” said Jeff Zucker, NBC Entertainment president. “I’m not going to discount the fact that maybe there’s more of an investment in this on the West Coast because it comes out of the entertainment division.” McGrady has no complaints about ABC’s support of “State v.” But it’s like the tree falling in the forest; ABC’s prime-time audience is at historic low levels, so who’s going to see the ads? ABC’s entertainment chiefs also made the seemingly suicidal choice of scheduling “State v.” in the time slot opposite “Law & Order,” a hit series that keeps more of its audience in reruns than most dramas. There were few other options without moving “20/20″ or “Primetime Live” from their regular spots, McGrady said. She didn’t want to do it. “‘Crime & Punishment’ and Dick Wolf, with all the things he has behind him, are very, very difficult for us to overcome,” she said “Never in my wildest dreams did I think ‘State v.’ could beat ‘Crime & Punishment.”‘ In the ratings, she means. Creatively, it’s a different story. ABC, which uses cases from the Phoenix area, makes a well-rounded portrait with interviews from the defense, prosecution and families along with unusual footage of deliberating jurors. The second ‘State v.’ case, about a drunk driver who passed by a poorly designed detour and into a barrier, killing his cousin, is so knotty two separate juries couldn’t reach a verdict. “Crime & Punishment,” which adds ominous background music to key passages, is a strict courtroom drama taken from a prosecutor’s point of view. The jury in the first episode never appeared on camera. Wolf begrudgingly admires ABC’s level of access, but believes his approach conveys real-life drama better. “This is much more viewer-friendly in terms of what viewers are used to seeing at 9 or 10 p.m., unless they’re watching a newsmagazine,” the veteran producer said. “It takes you along on a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.” Unlike the ABC show, Wolf said, “You don’t break the fourth wall with interviews. When it’s over, it is just what happened in front of the camera, which to me is inherently more interesting than people telling me what’s happening in front of the camera.” McGrady said ABC has been trying for years to persuade a jurisdiction to let it film jury deliberations. It’s interesting to hear the prosecution on “Crime & Punishment,” McGrady said, “but I like our approach of going to the prosecution, and the defense, and the trial, and the jury room,” she said. Wolf isn’t much interested in showing what the defendant is going through, “because in most cases they’re scum.” He doesn’t believe in objectivity. Both sides question each other’s methods. Wolf sees conversations between a lawyer and his client on “State v.” and suspects something’s being left out. McGrady sees prosecutors privately going over their case on “Crime & Punishment” and thinks it looks staged. “Because more people watch ‘Crime & Punishment’ doesn’t mean it’s a better show,” she said. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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