Police investigation dramas CSI and NCIS still drawing hordes of fans

More than a decade on, police investigation dramas CSI and NCIS are still drawing hordes of fans with formulaic offerings

They are unashamedly formulaic, offering the ultimate comfort viewing as you tune in to watch a criminal case that you know will be solved by the end of each episode.

This is one reason the long-running procedural crime dramas NCIS and CSI are not considered hip or cutting-edge.

Yet they get the job done when it comes to ratings: NCIS was named the world's most-watched television drama last year after attracting a global audience of 57.6 million in 2013, a title held in previous years by CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

This was achieved despite the fact that the media pays them little heed compared to newer and shinier offerings such as The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones or Mad Men, which all have much smaller audiences.

But the creators of NCIS and CSI, which have been on the air for 12 and 15 years respectively, say being the uncool dad suits them just fine.

Speaking to Life! and other press in Los Angeles recently, NCIS creator Gary Glasberg acknowledges that his hit show - which revolves around a fictional team of special agents, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, that investigate crimes involving the United States Navy - sticks studiously to a certain template.

"Look, our goal is to entertain, especially with a show like this that provides humour and heart and pathos and suspense and action, and it's all wrapped up in this 42-minute package."

As for the lack of buzz, he says: "We can't control what type of attention the show gets. We're very proud of the audience the show reaches. Whether it's a left-coast or a right-coast or a hip show or a not-hip show, there are 50-odd million people worldwide who want to watch and that's what we have to take pride in. That's what gets us through the day."

NCIS star Mark Harmon, who heads a cast that includes Michael Weatherly, Sean Murray and Pauley Perrette, describes fans of NCIS as "crazy loyal".

While it is extraordinarily popular in the US - where it was the most-watched programme last Tuesday night with a viewership of 18.6 million - the actor reveals that many of the most dedicated fans come from overseas, as it "caught on quicker abroad than it caught on here".

The fact that the series is a fixture on many TV schedules around the world adds to its steady appeal. "You hear about the cases of people in hospitals, who are sitting in a hospital bed and can't go anywhere, and because NCIS is on constantly, they have found this show. And you hear about people whose lives have been affected in a very real way by this show helping them along towards wherever they were headed," Harmon says.

NCIS and CSI producers have sought to keep things fresh by launching spin-offs, which have proven equally successful. These include NCIS: Los Angeles, starring Chris O'Donnell, and the recently debuted NCIS: New Orleans with Scott Bakula, now the most-watched first-season drama on American TV in a decade.

Fifteen seasons after the launch of the original CSI - which, along with Law And Order (1990 - 2010), can be considered the granddaddy of all police procedurals - that franchise is set to unveil its third spin-off, CSI: Cyber, to tackle the brave new world of Internet-related crime.

CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, who was behind this as well as CSI: Miami (2002 - 2012) and CSI: NY (2004 - 2013), believes there is universal appeal in showing heroes bringing closure to victims of crime.

"We've built a very successful franchise with the philosophy that we'll be bringing peace of mind to survivors on the worst day of their lives in solving crimes forensically and putting the bad guys away."

With that, they have hit on a television formula that seems to "work all day long in many countries and in many languages".

stlife@sph.com.sg

CSI Season 15 premieres today at 9.45pm on AXN (StarHub TV Channel 511).

NCIS Season 12 returns on March 12 at 9pm. NCIS: New Orleans returns on March 13 at 9pm. Both shows air on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, Singtel TV Channel 330). A marathon screening of NCIS: New Orleans (Episodes 1 to 10) airs on Feb 20 from 11.35am to 8.10pm.