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WASHINGTON — It's said all too often that you can't argue with success. But you can. The argument: CBS is doing a disservice by airing so many crime dramas. The counter-argument: Doing a disservice to whom? CBS is the most-watched network in America. Precisely the point. The more people who watch, the more people can get drawn into a worldview that we live in dangerous places in a dangerous society.

It's true that Marshal Matt Dillon gunned down some outlaw virtually every week on "Gunsmoke" — another CBS program — and that series ran 20 seasons. But by the time the show premiered in 1955, the Old West was a thing of the past. All of CBS' crime series are set in the present day.

Let's look at all of the CBS crime shows that aired the week of Jan. 16-22: "CSI: Miami," "Hawaii Five-O," "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles," "Criminal Minds," "Blue Bloods," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "The Mentalist," "The Medium," two installments of "CSI: New York" and two reruns as part of the network's "Crimetime Saturday" package.



That's 13 hours of crime out of 22 hours of prime time — 59 percent of CBS' prime time. And that doesn't include legal-beagle shows, like "The Good Wife" and "The Defenders." By comparison, ABC, NBC, Fox and CW air 16 hours of crime shows over 69 combined prime-time hours, or 23 percent. And that total includes fantasy shows like "Smallville," and reality series like "Cops."

CBS may be America's most-watched network, but it's also the network with the oldest average age of viewers. That's a problem for CBS, because advertisers prefer younger viewers. But it's also a problem for America, because studies have shown that TV viewers grow more fearful the more crime they see on the tube; this includes the "if it bleeds, it leads" late local newscasts. And older Americans are more affected by this phenomenon than younger viewers.

These findings should come as no surprise. Studies have shown for many, many years that Americans are affected by what they see on TV, and cultural critics have taken the TV industry to task for just as long over it. There's been a longtime animus over messages on TV. But the latest flap is over the new MTV series "Skins" with its depiction of teen sexuality.

In a Jan. 31 column, Catholic News Service reviewer John Mulderig said the show "follows a group of high school students who regard sexual activity, drinking and drug use as normal aspects of their lifestyle." Sponsors have withdrawn, the Parents Television Council has condemned it, and "some Catholic groups may also be mobilizing to oppose the show," he writes.

Well, if Americans believe that viewers will be affected by what is shown on "Skins," they should believe that viewers also will be affected by what they see on "Criminal Minds." Speaking of which, a "Criminal Minds" spinoff makes its debut on CBS just as "Medium" is being taken off the schedule.

Does CBS even know how to do warm, family-friendly programming anymore? The network does continue to air the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" made-for-TV movie series, most recently "The Lost Valentine." But that program accounts for two or three hours a year out of 1,144 total hours of prime time.

CBS' reality series seem to specialize in duplicity and deceit, especially "Survivor" and "Big Brother." And one of its newest entries in its sitcom lineup has a bleeped-out obscenity as part of its title. CBS can do better. But they won't bother unless viewers give them a reason to.

You can complain to CBS directly. Gil Schwartz is the network's executive vice president in charge of communications. He shuttles between New York and Los Angeles. The best bet is to write to him: Gil Schwartz, CBS, 524 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10019. The phone is (212) 975-4321. Schwartz is in charge of CBS' "audience services" division, which was formulating a reply to the charge it airs excessively violent TV shows.

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