Freddy versus Jason. Alien versus Predator. And

Freddy versus Jason. Alien versus Predator. And now, in the grand show-biz tradition of two lucrative franchises going mano a mano, on Sept. 22 comes TV’s main event: In this corner, prime time’s longest-running drama, going into its 15th season and the flagship of a billion-dollar brand, NBC’s Law & Order. In the other corner, the hottest rookie in town and newest member of an undefeated team, CBS’ CSI: New York. Get ready to rumble—and please place your bets.

Without question, the Wednesday, 10 p.m. time period hosts the premier matchup on the fall lineup. What’s more, this hour is one of the keys to the network season. While all eyes are on NBC’s Thursday—will Joey be okay? How long can this Trump thing last?—every ratings observer predicts that CBS will gain ground and NBC will lose it in this Wednesday slot. No single hour will determine the battle for prime-time supremacy, but with CBS already in shouting distance of NBC in sales demos, a big swing in ratings on Wednesday would further close the gap.

Donald Trump may be NBC’s biggest star today, but the L&O brand is more important financially, especially now that NBC Universal owns the studio that owns the shows. In fact, NBC’s desire to lock up the L&O assets was a stated reason for the Universal merger. Considering how much NBC relies upon it—the L&O shows supplied fully 20 percent of the network’s gross ratings points in adults 18-49 last year, according to an analysis supplied by Magna Global USA—any weakness would be cause for concern. And there has been some slippage.

Most glaringly, the Wednesday flagship has tumbled 22 percent over the last three seasons in adults 18-49. (All ratings are in this demo unless noted.) Ratings for Sunday’s L&O: Criminal Intent have bounced around in its three years on air, from a 3.6 to a 4.4 to a 4.0; it is up 11 percent since its premier season but could go either way from here. Six-year-old L&O: Special Victims Unit has been dead-even in demos (it did cough up some household audience), an excellent showing after its move last season to a much more competitive Tuesday roost. On average, the L&O shows in their regular time periods are down 8 percent over the three seasons, a performance few would complain about in an age of erosion. Across all telecasts, the decline is 15 percent, though this includes a growing number of third runs on low-rated Saturday. NBC ran its L&O shows almost 200 times last season.

CSI has been remarkably consistent for CBS, up a tick over three seasons and down a mere 5 percent last year in the face of The Apprentice. Spin-off CSI: Miami gained 5 percent in its sophomore season. Among its youngest skewing shows, the CSI franchise looms even larger for CBS, providing 19 percent of its 18-49 GRPs with only two series and rare third runs. And CSI is a hotter prime-time property these days—its two editions rank 8th and 14th in 18-49s, while the L&Os place 22nd, 30th and 41st.

Media agency ratings prognosticators give a slight edge to the challenger on Wednesdays. Says Steve Sternberg, Magna’s executive vp/director of audience analysis, “I’m not going to say that CSI: New York is going to win, but it has a very good chance. Law & Order has been declining while CSI hasn’t, and Law & Order is losing a major cast member [Jerry Orbach, who heads to the new L&O spin-off, Trial By Jury, early next year]. You’re talking about a share point or two separating these shows, but Law & Order seems a little weaker. When ABC put Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital there, its premiere beat Law & Order in demos. Of course, that show fell apart, but it may be an indication that people are looking for something to watch in the time period.”

“Law & Order has never had a strong counterattack before, and there’s a vulnerability there,” says Shari Anne Brill, vp/director of programming at Carat. “I expect CSI: New York will go 18-49 and NBC will win households and viewers.” She adds that off-net reruns of CSI on Spike may help that franchise, and she expects network usage in the time period to grow. Even though Brill foresees “quite a bit of slippage” for NBC here, that won’t affect the franchise, she says: “Each show has a different voice. SVU is in an especially good position, against the last year of NYPD Blue.”

“CSI: New York has the rare ability to play both offense and defense,” says John Rash, senior vp at Campbell Mithun. “It’s a new program versus a TV titan and yet if it performs beyond expectations it’s a significant success. Part of its role is to erode the cornerstone of the Law & Order franchise, so the risk is more to NBC than CBS here.”

“We think CSI will nudge ahead of Law & Order on Wednesday,” says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vp/director of Starcom Entertainment. “Law & Order’s household share has dropped two points each year, and CSI has the ability to be younger. Law & Order seems to be on every hour of prime time [on cable], so you can watch it anytime. CSI seems to have more in its corner.”

CBS is doing its best to lower expectations for the matchup. “No one here thinks we’ll beat Law & Order,” says Kelly Kahl, exec vp/program planning and scheduling. “We’re realistic. It’s a time period we’ve struggled in for 20 years. [Remember Wolf Lake? Didn’t think so.] No one’s expecting a miracle, but that’s why we came in with a big gun. It’s easier to attack something that’s going down, but it’s hard to think of Law & Order as vulnerable in any sense.” Then why challenge it? “We’ve been improving our 10 p.m. shows—Monday, Thursday, and Tuesday’s OK with Judging Amy—and when you have that luxury, you can look at this kind of time period.” Analysts point out that CSI: NY can’t expect many favors from its lead-in, the execrable John Goodman comedy Center of the Universe.

Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s senior vp/program planning and scheduling, calls this race “very hard to handicap. CBS paid us a compliment by putting a rookie phenom here, but it’s a compliment I can do without. Law & Order knows exactly what it is. It tells stories incredibly well, and will continue to do so no matter what’s on opposite. The Law & Order brand continues to be a time-period winner, it works on a lot of various platforms, it increases from its lead-in, it delivers that salable upscale audience and it delivers for our affiliates at 10:30. You can’t argue those Wednesday declines, but this asset is still in incredible shape.”

In fact, Dick Wolf, Law & Order’s creator and executive producer, is chomping at the bit to argue those Wednesday declines. “Our lead-in [The West Wing] has been literally cut in half,” he thunders. “It’s amazing that we’ve maintained as well as we have in the face of total disaster for our lead-in. This year, I’m up 46 percent on my lead-in, and that’s pretty damn instructive. You’re blaming this show for not going up more than 46 percent from its lead-in!”

L&O hovered around a 6 demo rating for its first nine seasons, then took off when West Wing came on in 1999, with both shows peaking in the 2001/’02 season. Over the last two years, West Wing has plummeted by 40 percent, while L&O’s drop is about half that. L&O now stands about where it did five years ago, pre-West Wing, and Wolf wants to know how many prime-time shows can say that.

By the same token, L&O: CI on Sunday has suffered from a declining (and not terribly compatible) lead-in from American Dreams; that installment improves on its lead-in by 53 percent. Wolf adds that his show has taken on ferocious competition from HBO’s The Sopranos: “They’re not winning the time slot—we are.” Analysts note that the success of CBS’ Cold Case at 8 has also altered the dynamics of Sunday, helping the network’s movie opposite L&O: CI.

On Wednesday, Wolf will have to live with that old nag West Wing this season. “We’ll probably be down a little bit again,” he says. “[CSI: NY’s] audience probably skews slightly younger and ours indexes slightly higher. If you want a prediction, I don’t think on a revenue basis we’ll be hurt that badly.” Even if the competition shaves off a rating point? “If that rating point comes from our 75K-plus homes, it may affect revenue,” he says, “but if it’s a diminution of our 18-49 audience, I don’t know if it does.”

L&O commands about $350,000 per commercial unit, according to media buyers; its sister shows fetch between $200,000 and $225,000 (SVU’s focus on sex crimes makes it a lingering content problem for some advertisers). CSI likewise pulls $350,000 (with lower ratings, L&O benefits from a decade-plus of CPM bumps) while CSI: NY drew about $225,000 per in the upfront, very good for a CBS rookie. All three L&Os are renewed by NBC through 2006, at license fees ranging from a reported $4.5 million for L&O: CI to as much as $7 million for the flagship, depending on ratings performance. Of course, much of the license fee now goes from one NBC Universal pocket to another, as does back-end revenue from USA. TNT has a deal to keep reruns of L&O into the next decade, and DVDs of early seasons, with bonus material, have already rolled out.

L&O is so long-lived and ubiquitous that observers naturally wonder if it will reach a saturation point. On top of multiple runs on NBC, it now airs 15 hours a week on TNT and 10 hours on USA, plus the occasional cable marathon. With L&O: Trial By Jury joining the fray next year—best guess is that NBC will slot it Friday at 10—can there too much of a good thing? “It’s more a question of when, not if,” says one analyst pointedly. “It’s been the show that defied gravity, but inevitably it will decline.”

Starcom’s Caraccioli-Davis disagrees: “As much as people want to talk about wear and tear, I don’t see any end in sight. Dick Wolf comes from the advertising world, he understands brands and treats this as a brand. Other shows have a show-runner, he has a business plan. Even if CBS beats them on Wednesday night, it’s not like this is the crack in his foundation.”

Wolf has a whole extended rap about how L&O is a brand while CSI is a franchise. “Their shows are well-cast and well executed, but they’re basically the same show in different cities,” he says. “Our shows are totally different but share a common name. It’s like Mercedes—a bunch of models but they’re all great cars.” Certainly, no one argues that L&O has run dry creatively. The flagship’s record run of 12 straight Emmy nominations for best drama ended a year ago, but observers speculate that voters split their ballots among the three series.

When Wolf calls the L&O brand “the most incredible success story in the history of TV,” he is not just a hyperbolic producer—overall revenues far exceed $1 billion and profits are “immense.” He waves off concerns about overexposure, pointing to ratings growth on both TNT and USA. “When the audience gets sick of it, we’ll know,” he says. “What do you propose? That we take ’em off before the audience gets bored?”

Wolf has made no secret of his desire to stay on the air another six years and top Gunsmoke as prime time’s longest running entertainment series. How Law & Order holds up this season against its toughest challenge ever will indicate if Wolf can reach his goal. Contributing writer Eric Schmuckler frequently writes about network TV.