NEW YORK – More cops and spies will be coming to the television airwaves this fall — and one new show in particular may hit close to home with its characters' quest to stamp out terror.
ABC will air Threat Matrix (search), about an elite Homeland Security Agency task force equipped with cutting-edge technology whose job it is to thwart any threat to the nation. And some media experts expect audiences to latch on to such timely dramas.
"Shows about spies, FBI, intelligence, the military are going to be more relevant now than they were before because people care about this stuff," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television (search) at Syracuse University.
But Threat Matrix won't just skim over its topic. The show uses the attention-grabbing "ripped from the headlines" slogan that helped make Law & Order (search) wildly popular.
"The newspapers are filled with homeland security, military issues, intelligence gathering," said Thompson. "Why waste all that capital when you can adapt that stuff into a script?"
The show, which is only a pilot so far, portrays the United States as a target of potential terrorist attacks, specifically by Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda (search). And the program is named after the very real intelligence briefings President Bush gets when 40 to 100 new threats are compiled into a daily report known as the "threat matrix."
But in these times of increased terror alerts, will realistic shows like Threat Matrix give away American secrets of how terrorists are tracked down and captured?
Rex Tomb, chief of the fugitive publicity and special projects unit with the FBI, said "of course" that's a concern, but that most networks are "extremely responsible."
Tomb said his unit has worked with TV shows such as The X-Files, Forensic Files and America's Most Wanted, but he's never had to ask an entertainment company to refrain from using material that could compromise security.
The FBI doesn't require that these shows rely on the agency for assistance, but wants to make sure the entertainment community knows it's there to lend a hand.
"What I would do is say 'Look, if it would help you, I'm prepared to give you some technical guidance,'" Tomb said. "We are here if they want us and yet we don't necessarily try to interfere with them at all."
Threat Matrix joins a host of other spy and crime-type shows that have been a hit with audiences. Fox's 24 and ABC's Alias have attracted millions of viewers not only for their edge-of-the-seat action, but also for their creative directing and production.
And media experts say it was only a matter of time until a program that addresses the current climate of the country would make it to prime time.
"Sept. 11 is now heading toward its second anniversary. It makes sense that ideas that were generated on that day and [during] the days after, would start making their way into the system," said Thompson. "We're getting this first generation of these new programs."
But just because the show appeals to people's curiosity doesn't mean it will be a hit. For instance, the CBS drama The Agency, about the CIA, was just canceled.
TV Guide Deputy Editor Lisa Bernhard said Threat Matrix will be also be a tough sell since it's pitted against Friends, the most popular comedy on TV.
But Jason Mittell, an assistant professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College in Vermont, pointed out that American appetites for dramas seem to be growing. For example, when 24 and Alias first aired — so soon after Sept. 11 — there was concern that they were too volatile for audiences. But the public tuned into those shows in droves.
"Initially, network programmers thought we had to be escapists," Mittell said. Now, "the fear factor is certainly being played up."
Bernhard agreed that Americans are ready to embrace realistic programs like Threat Matrix over fluff.
"I think truth is always stranger than fiction," Bernard said. "We're living in a time when we're surrounded by these incredible true-life story lines and true-life drama."