The ‘NCIS’ Phenomenon: Why Is It Suddenly Bigger Than Ever?

by | February 14, 2011 at 11:00 PM | NCIS

Mark Harmon and Sean Murray in NCIS (CBS)

Mark Harmon and Sean Murray in NCIS (CBS)

It’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen – a network drama in its eighth season drawing record ratings and leaping to the top of the prime-time rankings. But that is exactly what “NCIS” is doing.

“It’s unprecedented,” says Marc Berman, television analyst at Adweek Media and one of New York’s top experts on programming and ratings. “I don’t have any recollection of a drama picking up the way ‘NCIS’ has this late into the run.”

Indeed, “NCIS” is network TV’s top-rated drama, attracting more than 20 million viewers for each of its last four first-run episodes, including the last two weeks. Just this past Tuesday, the CBS drama drew 20.4 million. A week earlier, 22.85 million. And its spin-off, “NCIS: Los Angeles,” is doing nearly as well, scoring with 17.2 million viewers this past Tuesday following “NCIS” at 9/8c.

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The numbers are the highest in the eight-season history of “NCIS.” The question is: Why? How did a show that’s been around this long creep up to the top of the prime-time heap to become the nation’s most popular scripted drama series?

Berman thinks it has to do with the show’s tried-and-true formula – the same straightforward recipe for successful crime-solving dramas that CBS has embraced in the three “CSIs” (“CSI,” “CSI Miami” and “CSI New York”) and all the other ones that have come along in recent seasons – including “Numb3rs,” “Criminal Minds,” “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace.” “NCIS,” which stands for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” was originally a spin-off of another CBS series, “JAG” (“Judge Advocate General”), about U.S. Navy lawyers.

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“I think what works to its advantage is it’s a show that feels comfortable,” Berman says of “NCIS.” “You have a show that has a beginning, a middle and an end. You have your conflict in the middle, you have your resolution at the end and you walk away feeling satisfied. And yet, there’s still an element of coolness to it with a character like [medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard, played by David McCallum], then they have a younger crew of people [Michael Weatherly, Cote de Pablo and Sean Murray] and, of course, Mark Harmon, who is the stable force.”

Berman theorizes also that “NCIS” has drawn viewers who have grown tired of the three “CSIs.” “I just think that viewers finally started getting tired of ‘CSI’ and they said, ‘We need something else to latch on to,’ and this was just in the right place at the right time.”

Of course, there has been one change recently in the Tuesday-night competition picture: Unlike previous winters, “NCIS” no longer faces “American Idol” on Tuesdays this year since the Fox show shifted to a Wednesday-and-Thursday schedule. Still, while Berman concedes that “Idol’s” move has helped “NCIS” to some degree, he also notes that “NCIS” used to hold its own against “Idol” when the two shows went head-to-head.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt not to face ‘American Idol’,” he says, “but ‘NCIS’ was one of the few shows that could stand up to ‘American Idol.’ It had a very different audience. Last year at this time, when ‘Idol’ was on opposite it, it was still bringing in 17, 18 million viewers. It was still up there.”

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