NEW YORK – From the crumpled charm of Columbo to the sexy slickness of Miami Vice, TV cops have long captured viewers' imaginations -- and ratings.
Only a few seasons ago, crime shows were limited to Law & Order, NYPD Blue and not much else. But this fall's lineup is reminiscent of the glory days of cop shows in the mid-1970s, when Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, Baretta and Quincy were among the programs that crowded the small screen.
A virtual TV crime wave offers a host of new dramas, including CSI: Miami, CBS' much anticipated spin-off of Crime Scenes Investigators; NBC's much-touted Boomtown; Robbery Homicide with Tom Sizemore; Without a Trace starring Anthony LaPaglia; Hack with David Morse (all CBS); and Fox's Fastlane, about undercover cops.
And fans like Elyse Dickensan, an office worker from Connecticut, are ecstatic.
"I've been watching cop shows since (the '70s show) Adam-12," said Dickensan, who got so hooked on CSI last season she started a fan site, Elyse's Crime Scene Investigation Page.
"I like the science and I like the stories," Dickensan said. "It's a puzzle that you can follow." Dickensan regularly exchanges e-mails with CSI's consulting forensic scientist and posts detailed explanations of the science featured in each episode.
But what is it about these dark worlds of gruesome murders and psychotic killers that attract audiences?
Joe Saltzman, associate dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, said people watch cop shows for the same reason they slow down to look at traffic accidents. "There is a fascination with accidents and people in trouble," he said.
There's also an element of satisfaction in watching the bad guys get caught -- not always the case in real life.
"There are so many chaotic situations in life today that go on and on," Saltzman said. "It is very satisfying to sit there for an hour and see something get resolved."
Crime shows are basically mysteries, explained Steve Schaffer, founder of MysteryNet.com. "CSI presents crime in a form of a puzzle and people like to follow the puzzle," he said. "People also like things with a clean ending. He did it, here's why he did it, here's how he did it."
Saltzman added that studies have shown people who are fascinated by crime shows are more jumpy about their personal safety than those who stick with the sitcoms.
"They do have a psychological effect, but it's important not to lose sight that it's entertainment," he said.
Insiders also say shows like Law & Order and CSI are popular because they are among the most sophisticated programs on TV.
"The shows have very smart writing and the story telling is extraordinary," said Ted Frank, senior vice president of current series at NBC. "SVU (Special Victims Unit) has only gotten stronger since it has gotten more into the psychological terrain of the criminal."
"The stories are so good that you lose track that you are also engaged with the characters," Schaffer said.
But with the airwaves suddenly crowded with detectives, undercover officers and forensic scientists, can you have too much of a good thing?
For viewers like Dickensan, the main concern is scheduling. How does she check out an acclaimed new show like Boomtown opposite her beloved CSI? She'll skip the latter, but does plan on checking out Robbery Homicide.
Frank said NBC is not concerned about saturation or cannibalization. Criminal Intent, which runs opposite The Sopranos during the regular season, had a terrific summer re-run season with top ratings. The network even has another crime show, King Pin, waiting in the wings as a mid-season replacement.
"I think we're OK. I don't think the number of shows will have an effect (on current program ratings)," he said. "I think people are fascinated by crime and criminal psychology. They like to visit that world, and then they like to leave," he said.