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television: Testosterone TV

Thanks to Letterman, CBS' new 10 p.m. slot is a lot more appealing, especially to men.


But he could do better, he complained bitterly last year, if the network revamped the 10 p.m. weeknight hour to deliver more of his prime demographic, males 18 to 49. Letterman even threatened to jump ship to ABC if CBS didn't fix the problem for the 2002-03 season.

Letterman makes a lot of money for the CBS coffers, and if his logic is correct, he could bring in even more bucks. So — no surprise here — the network brass is trying to give him what he wants.

What might be considered a surprise, however, is that CBS has created an enviably strong 10 p.m. slot four nights out of five. On Mondays, it's the new "CSI: Miami," a spinoff of the highly successful "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." That wasn't much of a risk, considering its lineage, but the series is working well. "Judging Amy" is the 10 p.m. show for CBS Tuesdays, and while it's more of a chick show, it has proven its success for several seasons now. The weak spot is Wednesday night. "Presidio Med" — also made to appeal to women — is bombing, up against ABC's "MDs" and NBC's "Law & Order."

Thursday and Friday nights are where the network really gambled with new shows, and it looks as if there's a chance that the move may pay off. Both are tough nights to crack. NBC has owned the Thursday-night 10 p.m. slot with "ER" for years. It's one of network TV's biggest moneymakers, right up there with "Friends" and "Survivor." More recently, NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has dominated Friday nights at 10. The "Law & Order" franchise is a juggernaut.

CBS' Thursday-night lineup is giving Letterman just what he wants. "Survivor" sets it up at 8, and the original "CSI" keeps things rolling along well at 9. A new series with strong appeal to young males, "Without a Trace," is holding its own at 10 against "ER."

On Friday nights, it's "48 Hours" at 8 on CBS, then two new shows — "Hack" at 9 and "Robbery Homicide Division" at 10. "Hack" is doing surprisingly well for a show the critics panned before the season started. "Robbery Homicide Division," executive produced by Michael ("Miami Vice") Mann, is having a tougher time against NBC's "Law & Order: SVU," but it's still delivering a sizeable audience to Letterman.

Now for the bigger question: Which of the new CBS 18 to 49ers is actually worth watching? All of them, thanks to the presence of strong male leads. "CSI: Miami" carries on in the "CSI" tradition with the help of a persuasive performance by series lead David Caruso as Horatio Caine and a South Florida team of forensic investigators, who use cutting-edge scientific methods and old-fashioned police work to solve crimes. Anthony LaPaglia as Jack Malone on "Without a Trace" heads a diverse and robust cast of characters who locate missing people with the premise that who they are will lead to where they are. The toughest, and ultimately most appealing, of the new leads is David Morse as Mike Olshansky, the ex-cop turned crime-busting taxi driver on "Hack." (Ironically, one of the original two "Law & Order" cops, George Dzunda, provides a moral center for the series as Father Tom Grzelak.) And Tom Sizemore, as detective Sam Cole on "Robbery Homicide Division," is formidable as the head of an elite unit of L.A. cops who solve high-profile crimes in a series reflecting Michael Mann's trademark look of edgy, high-toned decadence set against neon nightscapes.

So who's the winner? What's a body to do with so many decent new CBS series bumping up against NBC's tried and true stalwarts? The audience wins, with a little help from those inventive folks who gave us VCRs.

And so does Letterman. S

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