November 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Want a snapshot of what Hollywood power players have thought of TV dramas for the past few years? Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf has one hanging on his office wall in Los Angeles: a photo of the Titanic.

In the past decade, the popularity of ”reality” shows and situation comedies soared, but TV dramas seemed to sink into the Nielsen cellar. Industry insiders ”thought we were dinosaur creators,” says Wolf, who hung the Titanic photo as an I-know-what-you’re-thinking joke on Hollywood’s moneymen.

The reality shows — newsmagazines à la Dateline NBC, tabloid TV such as Hard Copy, and low-rent pseudodocumentaries like Cops — had at least one advantage over dramas: They cost the recession-racked networks only about half as much (approximately $500,000) per episode. And viewers gobbled them up — why watch some actor bang down a door during a fictional drug bust when you can watch the real thing? The result: Since 1984, the number of prime-time hour-long dramas on the Big Three networks has dropped from 37 to 23, while the number of hour-long reality-based shows has jumped from 4 to 11.

But fiction, evidently, can be stranger (or at least more compelling) than fact — and this season, dramas have risen from the television grave. More than 26 million Americans spent a recent Thursday night tuned in to an episode of NBC’s ER, Michael Crichton’s adrenaline-pumped hospital show. Meanwhile, recent episodes of NYPD Blue and Law & Order have snagged their best ratings ever. Even Chicago Hope, CBS’ own doctor drama, which was once on the critical list, is now finishing second to Seinfeld on Thursday nights at 9 after switching out of its head-to-head battle with ER.

”The drama wasn’t dead — it was just asleep,” says Steve Sternberg, a senior partner at BJK&E Media Group, an advertising agency. ”Now we’re going to see a lot more drama in development.” And the reality shows, industry watchers say, are in decline.

”Television always kills the goose,” says Steven Bochco, cocreator of NYPD Blue and L.A. Law, ”[which] in this particular case is newsmagazines. They just proliferated to such a degree that people started getting sick of them. Suddenly, hour dramas appear to be fresh all over again.”

Why the change? In part, it’s because producers have revamped the genre to appeal to the most fidgety of couch potatoes. Unlike softer, ill-fated shows such as I’ll Fly Away and A Year in the Life, the new dramas have an urgent, chaotic visual style best represented by the shaky-cam feel of NYPD Blue — perfect for viewers used to watching Cops and Hard Copy. And the content, too, has become increasingly hard-edged, even harsh. Says Robert Nathan, ER‘s supervising producer: ”One of the things I loved about the pilot was that people died. Some said viewers would be scared, but I think most people know that people die in the hospital. Michael Crichton didn’t pay attention [to the rules].”

In short, dramas have declared war on reality programs by becoming more like reality itself. ”People see the U.S. as a grittier place,” says David Westin, president of ABC Television Network Group. ”Good entertainment has to reflect how people are feeling.”

In addition, more dramas are unabashedly swiping their story lines from the evening news. One recent episode of Law & Order was obviously inspired by the story of Katherine Ann Power, the antiwar fugitive who ”surfaced” last year. And the corruption of the NYPD Blue cops mirrors the scandals now tainting a police precinct in Harlem.

Bochco, who arguably kicked off the reality trend back in 1981 with Hill Street Blues, will take the concept to a new level next year. His upcoming series for ABC, tentatively titled Murder One, will devote an entire season to the highly technical ins and outs of a single murder trial.

Producers like Bochco — and the network execs who back them — are hoping that no matter how authentic the reality shows are (or at least seem), viewers will always hunger for good stories, written well. ”The notion that drama was dead was ridiculous,” says David Black, executive producer of NBC’s new drama The Cosby Mysteries. ”It’s like saying food or religion was dead. It’s that central to the human condition.” Adds ER‘s Nathan: ”Watching cops arrest somebody doesn’t teach us about the human condition. If Dickens were alive today, he’d be the king of episodic television.”

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