It's the kind of network showdown VCRs were made for. This fall, ABC will unveil the highly anticipated Steven Bochco series Murder One. In an O.J. Simpson-saturated world, the courtroom drama dares the unprecedented: It tracks one homicide case through an entire season. Perhaps even more ambitious, however, is its time slot Thursday at 10 p.m., head-to-head with NBC's ER, prime time's hottest hour.
The combatants know they're in for a struggle. Like gentlemanly jocks before the big game, ER executive producer John Wells calls Murder the season's best new drama, while Bochco the heavyweight behind Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue terms ER a juggernaut. ''They're going to kick our ass,'' he says. ''Who's kidding who?''
It's true that Murder inherits the Bermuda Triangle slot. Last season, ER made CBS ship Chicago Hope to Monday, replacing it with 48 Hours, while ABC tried PrimeTime Live, then the weaker Day One. But now things are different. ER, which gathered 23 Emmy nominations and averaged 28.5 million viewers last season, won't be facing two newsmagazines and, with Friends moving to 8 p.m., isn't likely to have such a beefy lead-in.
Whether Murder is the right challenger is another question. ''To put in a show that has the identical demographic of what's already there is a bit of a suicide mission,'' Wells says. ABC probably won't back down, though. Its other weeknight schedules are firm, says network Entertainment president Ted Harbert, and the network ordered a full season of Murder 23 episodes, effectively betting $30 to $35 million that the sober panache of a Chicago hospital ward can't swamp the lurid glamour of an L.A. tycoon accused in the sex slaying of a teenage girl.
''I'm not as confident as I was last year,'' admits ER costar Noah Wyle. ''I grew up watching Steven Bochco dramas, and I know how good they can be.'' That's exactly the message ABC is hammering home. The network has unleashed a million-dollar promo blitz tops for its new shows and will debut Murder on Sept. 19, in NYPD's choice Tuesday slot. Because Murder is a series that's truly serial, Bochco figures, ''If we don't get 'em early, we won't get 'em.'' (They certainly won't get 'em on star power: Their biggest name is Iron Eagle's Jason Gedrick, while defense lawyer Daniel Benzali imagine Patrick Stewart crossed with Robert Shapiro is chiefly a stage actor.) To encourage drop-in viewing, every episode has a Court TV-like recap of case developments and a tidy 'B' story line. ''We're 45 minutes of concentrated information,'' Gedrick observes. ''[With O.J.], people just get little trinkets.''
The big trinket dangling in front of ABC is a piece of prime time NBC has come to rule. ''We just don't have the stomach to let ER run unopposed,'' Harbert says. If the gamble fails, however, no one will have to wait until May to figure out Murder's real killer.