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''Dark Angel'' could trounce WB's ''Angel'' -- at first

But James Cameron’s new sci-fi series faces formidable vampire competition in the long run

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John Savage, Jessica Alba, ...

One contender bites, the other kicks butt, and both are fighting for a much coveted prize: young TV viewers. In one corner is the heavyweight challenger, Fox’s ”Dark Angel,” the new sci-fi action series, which has big money (Tuesday’s two hour premiere cost up to $10 million) and ”Titanic” size hype (the show’s creator/ executive producer is James Cameron) on its side. In the opposite corner is the returning ratings champion, WB’s ”Angel” — the successful horror action spinoff of ”Buffy The Vampire Slayer” — whose second season debut last week reached a record 6 million viewers.

Beyond their eerily similar names, both shows have slick, cinematic looks and sexy, brooding leads: ”Angel”’s David Boreanaz plays a vampire avenger in Los Angeles, while newcomer Jessica Alba is a genetically enhanced heroine in ”Dark Angel”’s futuristic Seattle. The big question is, Which will emerge as THE angel of Tuesday night’s lineup?

Judging by sheer audience numbers, the Cameron creation has the advantage. For starters, Fox reaches 15 to 20 percent more homes than the WB. The network’s also been spending heavily on the premiere’s promotional campaign, which includes theatrical trailers, billboards, and ”guerilla marketing” — in other words, ads with serious street cred. And that Fox is opting to debut ”Dark Angel” rather than air the first Presidential debate only adds to the sense that the new show is a fresh alternative to typical mainstream fare.

Ditching the politicians ”is a genius move on Fox’s part,” says Marc Berman, a TV analyst at Mediaweek.com. ”The people who watch the debates aren’t the people who’ll tune into ‘Dark Angel’ anyway.” But Fox shouldn’t celebrate just yet. ”The premiere’s numbers aren’t going to hold up,” Berman cautions. ”On a regular night[when there’s more various competition], it’s going to be an uphill battle to get a loyal audience.”

Brad Adgate, a research director at Horizon Media, agrees and says the real test will come in future weeks, when the fireworks of the ”Dark Angel” special event premiere give way to ”Dark Angel,” the lower budgeted, ongoing action series: ”Fox has promoted the hell out of this show, but ‘Angel’ has such a core audience that I can’t see them losing much.” And having the kickass lead in of ”Buffy” can only strengthen ”Angel”’s long term appeal with young viewers.

Of course, this is good news for the WB, whose execs are worried that audiences might confuse the two shows. ”We don’t want people to think ‘Dark Angel’ is our ‘Angel’ on a different network,” says Brad Turrell, executive VP of Network Communication for the WB. To set viewers straight, the WB bought a full page ad in this week’s TV Guide that reads: ”There is only ONE. David Boreanaz is ANGEL.” Turrell says Fox’s intense marketing campaign for ”Dark Angel” may mean a smaller audience for his series — but only at first. ”There’s no question that their show will get the higher initial rating,” Turell says. ”But we have the better show, and we have an intense viewership that will keep our show a consistent, if not outrageous, hit.” He’s hoping that ”Angel,” like all vampires, isn’t easy to kill.