Broadcast networks are in big trouble this season if federal regulators add being derivative to the list of TV trespasses. Networks are copying their own series, sometimes with a third or fourth edition ("CSI," "Law & Order") or putting on shows that have the whiff of copycat about them ("The Contender" vs. "The Next Great Champ").

Television is used to milking ideas for all they're worth, but the trend is nearly overwhelming in the 2004-05 season — nearly, but not quite.

There are a few wayward and promising originals, including ABC's suburban satire "Desperate Housewives"; CBS' coming-of-age baseball drama "Clubhouse"; the WB's "Jack & Bobby," about a future U.S. president's youth, and NBC's animated Siegfried & Roy comedy "Father of the Pride." (search)

Mostly, however, viewers will get what's been proven to work because networks figure playing it safe is the sanest course of action.

"The networks will continue to create similar shows or variations of franchises as long as the audience continues to watch," said industry analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group.

Since people flock to CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "CSI: Miami," give 'em "CSI: NY." Or a fourth "Law & Order," coming midseason. Or two more reality series in which rich guys spread the wealth in the tradition of NBC's hit "The Apprentice" (search) ("The Benefactor," "The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best").

After all, one of the best characterizations of the medium, right behind Newton Minow's "vast wasteland," is the late satirist Fred Allen's assertion that imitation is the sincerest form of television.

There's deja vu in casting as well, with familiar TV faces in new places, among them Rob Lowe (search) ("The West Wing") in "dr. vegas"; Neal McDonough ("Boomtown") and Kelli Williams ("The Practice") in "Medical Investigation," and John Goodman ("Roseanne"), Jean Smart ("Designing Women") and Ed Asner ("Lou Grant") in "Center of the Universe."

(Heck, even "Jeopardy!" is bringing back last season's ongoing champion, Ken Jennings (search), when the syndicated game show returns in September.)

The goal for networks is to keep their footing in the unending battle against cable TV's innovative, often racy programming which broadcast can match in only a pallid fashion.

If it tries to do more than that, the Federal Communications Commission (search) is waiting to enforce indecency regulations — now even more vigorously since Janet Jackson's Super Bowl exposure.

Broadcasters may need a laugh but they're not searching for comfort in comedy. A paltry seven new sitcoms are debuting, making an already drama-heavy schedule even more so. All told, the six networks will field up to 49 dramas by the first quarter of 2005, compared to some 37 comedies.

For the first time in two decades, NBC won't have four sitcoms on Thursday night. It will have "Joey," the "Friends" spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc (search) and one of the season's high-profile newcomers.

Another season hallmark is the sizable number of new reality shows — six — and their introduction at the season's start. This year, they're not second-string substitutes for failed dramas and sitcoms.

The result: an extreme, if gradual, makeover.

"Comedy and newsmagazines are pushed out by the influx of reality shows — or infestation," said Shari Anne Brill, an analyst with the ad buying firm Carat USA.

Advertisers welcome the shows because they attract younger viewers but don't like how they play havoc with marketing plans when abruptly tossed on the air, said TV analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media.

"There's nothing more irritating to an advertiser to be told you're scheduling a scripted series and then you change it to a reality series," she said, because the audience shift has a ripple effect across the dial.

Order is relative, however. The tradition of all shows debuting in the same fall week has been upended despite the season's official Sept. 20 start date.

Fox, accommodating the interruption caused by its postseason baseball coverage, is moving to year-round scheduling. It already debuted a trio of series ("North Shore," (search) "Quintuplets" and "Method & Red") in June.

WB had its own summer rollout in July with "Studio 7" and "Blue Collar TV."

NBC, seeking to capitalize on its new series promos during the Olympic Games, is introducing part of its schedule immediately after the Games wrap up Sunday.

Now, let the Network Games begin.