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LOS ANGELES -- It's the television equivalent of the Pepsi vs. Coke war -- two extremely popular products that will be battling for the same market share. At 10 p.m. Wednesday this fall, NBC's venerable "Law & Order" will be facing its toughest challenge in years when CBS trots out its third version of its own popular crime series, "CSI: New York."

Dick Wolf, the producer of the three "Law & Order" series and a fourth arriving in midseason, concedes that this will be the original show's toughest competition. But the former advertising man wasn't about to agree that the battle of New York crime series is a battle of the brands. In an interview here, Wolf tried to make a distinction by calling "CSI" a franchise and "Law & Order" a brand. "It's like the Palm restaurant," Wolf said of "CSI." "If you go to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, you get a great steak. The only thing that changes are the caricatures on the wall. 'Law and Order' is a brand. Each of the shows are distinctly different. They have distinctly different attitudes."

Les Moonves, the co-president of Viacom who oversees CBS programming, questioned Wolf's claims. "I think clearly he showed that he's a little worried about the "CSI' franchise by those remarks," said Moonves. "I think arguably "CSI' is as different as "Law & Order' is and the various (series). There's also a ratings thing that's going on. "CSI' is going up, the "Law & Orders' are going down."

Wolf's show also will be dealing with cast changes in the fall. Dennis Farina is replacing Jerry Orbach as the veteran detective opposite Jesse Martin's character. And Elizabeth Rohm, who plays an assistant district attorney, is leaving in the middle of her fourth season. In years past, cast changes have helped infuse "Law & Order" with a new energy, but the show didn't have to deal with a threat as big as "CSI: New York" before.

One thing looks clear: The face-off will be a choice, not an echo.

Wolf hates dealing with the personal lives of his characters, feeling it distracts from the procedural drama.

Anthony Zuiker, the creator of "CSI" and co-creator of "CSI: New York," plans to focus more on the lives of the co-lead characters played by Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes ("Providence") than has been done in the two previous "CSI" shows.

"We're a forensic procedural drama at heart, but the execution of this show will be slightly more character-driven," said Zuiker. "We're going to attempt to literally let the moments play and get to know these wonderful characters a lot sooner."

Kanakaredes said that both her character, Stella, and Sinise's character, Mac, have a bond from working together and sharing some personal pain. Stella is the oldest girl in her family.

"Dad was killed, and she found him and never quite got the truth of what happened," said Kanakaredes. "What seems to be the common thread of people who I have met in this (forensic) field is it is that closure of finding the truth. The ability to know what exactly happened."

Stella's history enables viewers to see why certain cases affect her.

"It gives me something to do other than (look at) fiber," said Kanakaredes.

Mac is dealing with the loss of his wife on 9/1 1.

"And the only woman constant in his life - we're not talking about any physical or sexual relationship - is Stella," said Kanakaredes. "So that parallel of knowing how he works and how he is nursing himself, it's nice to have that sort of balance. They have an unspoken sort of connection where they know when something's off-kilter."

Kanakaredes disagrees with Wolf's position on the danger of focusing on character.

"I think on the contrary to what Mr. Wolf said, who is phenomenal in his storytelling, there is a way to layer in character in the way in which we discover the scientific evidence," she said.

Of course, TV isn't a science, and soft-drink companies have learned that changing the formulas can be risky business. But Moonves isn't expecting "CSI: NY" to outsell "Law & Order" in the Battle of New York.

"CSI: NY' is not going to beat "Law & Order,' " said Moonves. "However, "CSI: NY' is going to do better than we've done in that time period in decades."


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