The scene: a busy Manhattan street. A well-dressed man, suddenly short of breath, looks in horror at his hands and then collapses on the sidewalk. His skin is an eerie blue.
Cut to Bethesda, where a man's cell phone rings. Soon he is sprinting to a nearby field, where a black helicopter swoops in to pick him up.
"We've got an incident!" he barks. "Get everyone. We're going to New York."
So begins Friday's premiere of "Medical Investigation," NBC's new dramatic series. Part "ER," part "CSI," the show tracks a team of biomedical gumshoes whose weekly task is to figure out why people are falling ill in droves.
The series is based on the real-life Epidemic Intelligence Service, the elite corps of moon-suited heroes who chase ebola outbreaks, anthrax attacks and other emergencies for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which has been consulting with the show's producers for months.
It is publicity no amount of money could buy for the CDC, an agency historically overshadowed by its richer sister, the National Institutes of Health. Except that in NBC's version, these hotshots are not part of the CDC at all, but rather . . . the NIH.
In public health circles, the result has been an epidemic of apoplexy.
"It's infuriating," said one physician affiliated with the CDC, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Retribution? Here the plot thickens. In Washington, where everything is political, the story has grown to the proportions of a grand conspiracy, with some attributing the slighting of the CDC to high-level officials at the NIH and perhaps even to Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services.
"From my understanding . . . it really is due to the strong arm of the NIH, and [CDC Director Julie L.] Gerberding is in no position to argue with Tommy Thompson," one disgruntled public health expert said in an e-mail. "Someone up the food chain . . . has gone along with the NIH spin."
Not so fast, urged HHS spokesman Bill Hall.
"People in HHS never said they wanted it this way," Hall said, adding a reminder that the show is not a documentary but entertainment. "From HHS's perspective, we're all happy that NBC has seen fit to depict an element of the government that works to protect people and save lives. We're just happy to get people interested in epidemiology."
Hall and others confirmed, however, that bubbling dissent within the CDC and the larger public health community had led to efforts in recent months to let NBC know that the show's heroes were on the wrong federal payroll. Opinions differ as to how aggressively the NIH sought to set the record straight.
What is known is that separate letters to NBC were at first crafted by CDC and NIH officials; those were scrapped in favor of a joint letter that never got past the draft stage. Finally, a few weeks ago, representatives from both agencies flew to Hollywood to discuss the problem with writers and producers.
By then the first episodes had been shot.
"I literally told them they should dub in the word 'CDC' because it's wrong," said Donald Francis, a 20-year veteran of the CDC who is no longer with the agency but is serving as an adviser to the series. In fact, Francis said, he had been trying to get the show to make the change since long ago.
"When I saw the first example, I said, 'Why did you do this? NIH never does that.' I warned them this is going to irritate everyone," he said.
Anthony S. Fauci, chief of the NIH institute that deals with infectious diseases, expressed surprise Thursday when a reporter told him of the show's theme. When told about one scene in which an NIH sleuth carefully swabs the sewer line in a victim's home in search of clues, he burst into laughter.
"We don't get near that stuff," Fauci said. "We do research. CDC must be going bonkers."
Not everyone at the CDC will regret that the agency goes unmentioned on the show. At one point, the "NIH" team picks a lock to break into a restaurant it wants to check out. Later, the "NIH" media officer tries to seduce a reporter to keep him off the story. And although CDC investigators, in real life, are supposed to help local doctors but never take charge, the show's star investigator, played by Neal McDonough, is a flat-out bully.
When a local physician, stumped by the blue-man epidemic, says to McDonough, "Your guess is as good as mine," McDonough replies with stunning arrogance:
"No, my guess is better. But only one of us gets to make the call. Do you want to make the decision that could affect the lives of 8 million New Yorkers? Or do you think you better leave that one to me?"
That kind of scene irritates local health officials, who are quick to note that they solve the vast majority of the medical mysteries they encounter without calling in the feds.
Chris Conti, NBC's senior vice president for drama development, said he was committed to scientific accuracy.
"We didn't want to make a fake show," he said. "We really wanted to keep it grounded and keep it real."
A physician consultant is on the set whenever a medical scene is shot, he said -- a commitment to accuracy that has, at times, been more trouble than it is worth. In one scene, for example, a hospital bed was tilted during the depiction of a medical procedure known as intubation, to allow for an interesting camera angle.
"Hold it," Conti said the doctor shouted. "You'd never incline while intubating!"
So, why are the show's heroes affiliated with the NIH? How high in the administration does this go?
"I would love to be so important that President Bush called me," Conti said. "My father would love that. He's a Republican."
But as with so much in television, he said, there is less to this plot than meets the eye.
"It's not like we're against them," Conti said of the CDC. "But when you say the word 'CDC,' an image comes into your head of a bunch of guys in hazmat suits, with steel sliding doors and everything shot in blue light." By contrast, he said, "NIH" had more of a "blank slate" image that gave the producers more room to be creative.
"It's a fudge, I admit it," Conti said. "There are futzes here and there. It's television."
The good news for CDC fans: The writers have agreed to start mentioning the agency in future episodes.
Staff writer Lisa deMoraes contributed to this report.