THE GOOD AND BAD NEWS ABOUT CBS' 'HARD COPY'

Yes, we had the "Lou Grant" years.

For the most part, though, the news media are given a bad time in prime time and are usually depicted as "Jaws" on land, a mindless, predatory monolith with primal urges to cover sensational crime cases by camping outside courthouses and ambushing anyone who emerges.

And in theatrical movies, the occasional "Calling Northside 777" or "All the King's Men" are far outnumbered by hackneyed stories typified by "--30--," which is what reporters traditionally type at the bottom of stories to indicate the end.

So consider this column a rousing one-person welcoming committee for the concept of "Hard Copy," the uneven new CBS drama series about police reporters airing at 10 p.m. Sundays (Channels 2 and 8). Episode three arrives this weekend.

It's ironic that in this era of pervasive media, the media remain a largely mocked, undervalued and misunderstood institution. A good TV series about the press could enlighten as it entertains.

Right on cue, here comes "Hard Copy." Good idea, so-so execution.

"Hard Copy" is a Universal Television production created by Richard Levinson and William Link ("Columbo," "Murder, She Wrote"), who have become the Lone Rangers of TV, originating pilots for potentially swell series and then galloping off into the sunset.

They focused "Hard Copy" on a big city "cop shop," the nickname given the police station press room by reporters whose beat is cops and crime. Many spend their entire days in the "cop shop."

"This is not a crime show," executive producer William Sackheim said recently. "It's a show about crime reporters." Good news. Who needs more crime shows?

"People always say that you can't do a show about reporters because they are observers and not participators, but I disagree with that," Sackheim said. Good news again.

Although it's true that reporters are observers by trade, they have lives apart from their work just as much as the cops, doctors and lawyers do on NBC's "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere" and "L.A. Law," respectively.

The media presence has simply exploded in recent years, moreover, spinning off career-related tensions and dramas in the lives of reporters that are at once fascinating and relevant to the role of a free press in a democracy. For a good fictional treatment, try "The China Syndrome."

Plus there is humor--something that spills out of any newsroom.

So a series about the media--any segment of the media--has huge promise.

Which makes "Hard Copy" an automatic success? Hardly.

Along with its big potential come big problems, not the least of which is credibility.

"It's not very accurate," said Norm Jacoby, who's covered the police beat for City News Service since 1952. "I don't think it represents the real press room," said Nieson Himmel, who's spent 30 years on the beat, including 11 for The Times.

On the positive side, you have to like a series that shows reporters pulling out notebooks and actually taking notes. That's almost revolutionary.

What's more, "Hard Copy" so far has an appealing Hill St. Bluesy quality, a sort of melancholy, minor-key undertone that conveys texture while avoiding outright cynicism and bleakness. That is especially evident in the attitudes of two of three central characters--reporters Andy Omart (Michael Murphy) and Blake Calisher (Wendy Crewson).

Superior actors playing shaded, nuanced, interesting, rare-for-TV characters.

Omart, for example, is a man whose battered car is a metaphor for his life and career, a weary, fizzed-out, realistically unheroic reporter who considered escaping to public relations in the premiere episode, whose lows were balanced by compelling highs.

Omart's flaws were also apparent as he greedily exploited the trust of his cub assistant, David Del Valle (Dean Devlin), to steal a hot story about a freeway murderer who had killed another reporter.

Omart and Calisher had a badly depicted bedroom fling in last Sunday's foolish second episode, dominated by the third central character, the overwritten, unbelievable Del Valle.

He's obnoxious and looks like a teen-ager. Are we to believe that this green, cocky, jerky kid has the smarts to immediately zoom up the career ladder? Why would anyone even bother with him?

On the premiere, he phoned an editor at his newspaper and conned the editor into giving him a joint byline with Omart even though the editor didn't know Del Valle or how to spell his name. It just wouldn't happen.

"This kid's from outer space," observed Times police reporter Himmel. "The main thing is: How did he get hired? And where does he get his information?"

Del Valle is your basic fast study. He was Omart's new assistant on the premiere. Then last Sunday (with a solid week of experience under his belt), he was promised the coveted city hall beat, but quit in protest when the paper downplayed his story on drugs.

Then Omart came to the rescue. He told Del Valle that he had gotten him a job replacing a departing police reporter for a competing paper. Whereupon Del Valle sat down at the other reporter's desk in the police press room--without asking about details or salary or anything else--and that was that.

That's preposterous.

So are the police here, nasty, shrill, overcooked caricatures whose function is to contemplate new, creative ways to bully reporters and suppress the truth. Fionnula Flanagan is wasted as snide press liaison officer Lt. Guyla Cook, the show's version of the LAPD's amiable Lt. Dan Cooke, a consultant for "Hard Copy."

"She's a little too strong," the LAPD's Cooke said, diplomatically.

"How can she tell you what to print and what not to print?" asked Himmel of The Times.

There are more overdrawn characters here and an omission of press room atmosphere, including the overlapping dialogue that "Hill Street Blues" uses so effectively and the ever-present loud chatter of police radios.

"Hard Copy" is an ideal stage for strong personal stories concerning such media topics as privacy, manipulation, print-TV tensions, protection of sources and live-coverage abuses a la Geraldo Rivera.

When that worm Del Valle impersonates a doctor to get a deathbed story on Sunday's otherwise appealing third episode, though, his shabby ethics are only fleetingly mentioned. A bad omen.

"Hard Copy" ratings are another. Deployed after the Super Bowl, the premiere managed to attract 33% of the available audience, which was good enough for 17th in the Nielsens. However, the second episode plummeted to 50th with 21% of the viewers.

Perhaps "Hard Copy" is another "Hill Street Blues," destined to labor in the ratings before finding its niche. Or perhaps we're already seeing the beginning of the end.

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