Anthony E. Zuiker

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at October 24, 2007 - 9:58 AM GMT

See Also: 'Down the Rabbit Hole' Episode Guide

Anthony E. Zuiker is nothing if not a progressive thinker. With all three CSI shows continuing to trounce the competition in the ratings, Zuiker is constantly staying one step ahead of television trends by looking outside of TV itself to other media such as the internet and mobile phones. His latest venture involves the virtual world Second Life, and in the October 24th episode of CSI: New York, "Down the Rabbit Hole," Mac Taylor and his team will investigate the murder of a popular figure in Second Life. Zuiker spoke with CSI Files' Kristine Huntley about CSI: NY's latest venture and why he thinks cross-platforming is the wave of the future when it comes to television.

CSI Files: You're obviously a fan of cross-platforming, given last year's "Hung Out to Dry" which featured What made you choose Second Life for CSI: New York this season?

Anthony Zuiker: CBS put a minority stake investment into a company called Electric Sheep and they specialize in making virtual worlds. They approached me in June of 07 to be involved in this. The goal was to launch to a virtual world that was CSI: New York-esque in the best fashion. So we came up with the idea that we would actually do a show in the "first life," that will air [tonight] and in that show Gary Sinise would be chasing a killer in Second Life and Gary would have to go through the process of downloading the software, creating his avatar and then going into the world [of Second Life].

The show will actually cliffhang, and when the show is over at eleven o'clock, the narrative continues because the CSI: New York virtual world will be open for business, where you can download a customized avatar, actually go into world, go through orientation, teleport to different New York simulations that emulate Manhattan from top to bottom in a virtual world: Flatiron Building, Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, you can go inside the real CSI: NY lab--that's the same lab that's on our show.

You can either play casual games, like facial reconstruction or puzzles or memory games. You can play a more intermediate game, which is called "Murder by Zuiker," which is a blog game where I create a crime scene virtually, and I challenge you to go in that crime scene, analyze it, and write in 500 words or less what you think happened, and then I will read the excerpts and I will post the top ten that I think are closest to my solution. I'll hide one more clue inside that crime scene; if you find it, you guys should go back into world and get a gift for your avatar for solving a crime. In expert play, if you're a little more hardcore, your avatar can actually engage in a crime scene somewhere in world in a simulation. You get your own field kit, you fly around, you talk to suspects, you gather the evidence, you analyze it. At the end you talk to Cisco Telepresent Center and they analyze how you did.

So there's something for everybody in terms of gaming in the virtual world. There's also a social aspect--you can purchase items, you can build real estate--everything you can do in Second Life you can do in the simulation. But this is the most aggressive simulation in Second Life. And don't forget the numbers are seven million people belong to Second Life, but only about 40-41,000 are actually on it at one time. We are going to do something special [tonight] which is clearly historic, which is we're going to, in two thirty second spots, invite our viewership to the virtual world in the show. It's completely groundbreaking that we would advertise that there's a virtual world that we encourage our viewer to download. We're going to invite 15 million people to this party.

The great thing about what we're doing is that not only is there a narrative set up in first life, but when it continues in Second Life that narrative will continue for many, many months, all the way through February. In February, we'll do part two of the show. We're actually having a rock star on the show to help our people solve the crime. Then that person will be performing in a live concert in Second Life after the show ends in a true triple cross-platform play.

The future of television [is] TV, mobile, on-line and gaming, that are specific things to the device that drives you back to television. We're really making a concerted effort [to commit] to a narrative on a seasonal arc in both platforms, which I think really makes this special.

CSI Files: For viewers to get the full impact of the story, do they have to go into Second Life?

Zuiker: They don't have to. That's key. The last thing I want to do is to punish the viewer for not committing to other platforms. That wouldn't be fair. But if you want a deeper experience that enforces the narrative, you can certainly play and belong to the virtual world of Second Life. If you just watch the show tomorrow night and come back on February 6th and watch that show, you're not behind at all. But I want to give the viewer the option of a deeper experience.

We've lost 20% of our viewership on television because everybody's on the web. They're on the web in a very communal way; they're really engaging in community. I'm trying to do 3-D community with Second Life, trying to invite a viewership to come in and take over virtual world and have a sense of community there, and hopefully bring some Second Life people back to first life to watch television, to really go between platforms and get those younger viewers back as best we possibly can. And I feel like this is the best approach.

CSI Files: We've already seen at least one Second Lifer stop by TalkCSI to offer guidance to those who choose to try out Second Life.

Zuiker: My avatar's actually in world, so when you first drop in, I'm there to say hi to you and walk you through. I've done a ton of pre-loaded audio scripts that make sure that you're not confused, that you know how to work everything. We've really made it very 6th grade in a way to where the mass audience is not going to be confused. I would tell people I have absolutely no interest in catering this to just Second Lifers. I want the masses to try this--that's really, really important.

There's going to be a time when all TV shows--and this could be 5-10 years from now--need to engage in a) the television first, b) the web--you need to have a web native show that's five minutes long that's You Tube-esque that really enforces or reinforces the narrative that doesn't smell like television, and then there's c) a mobile approach that gives you alerts and interactivity with the phone and d) there's a gaming aspect to where you go through some casual game element that will unlock more content, more narrative but will drive you back to television. If there's one mistake the industry is making right now, it's that they're trying to put the content on every device possible--even your watch, but they're not doing anything to drive the narrative and the viewer back to TV, where it all has to begin and end. When it doesn't, I think we're in trouble.

CSI Files: Will any of the CSI: NY characters be on Second Life?

Zuiker: No, they won't. Just me!

CSI Files: How did Adam (A.J. Buckley) get chosen to be the character that brings everyone into Second Life?

Zuiker: He seemed the most obvious. He's the youngest and hippest of the group. People would buy that he would know about Second Life more than anybody. Mac Taylor, although [he's] as hip as he could possibly be, we had to have somebody represent the audience, which is Mac [going,] "What is this virtual world?" Adam comes in and schools him [and then] Mac begins to do well in Second Life. That's our way of saying, hey, if this is a brand new thing to you--which by the way it probably is completely foreign and brand new to 75% of our audience--we'll have to do some quick education.

The great thing about this show that I'm most proud of is the fact that we didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. We still stuck to the formula of what makes CSI great--we put a compelling story with great mystery and good science. At the same time we actually are bringing people into a different world, much like we did back with plushies and furries back in CSI's days, where you really were transporting people into a different element and they went along for the ride. The difference is when it's over, it's not over.

CSI Files: Will this Second Life mystery tie in at all with the other on-going mystery on the show, the 333 caller who's been harassing Mac?

Zuiker: No. The storyline will be separate and it'll be fresh [tonight] and without giving too much away that narrative will continue through February in some permutation, but it won't step on the other core thread we're doing, which is 333, and Stella's [Melina Kanakaredes] boyfriend.

CSI Files: You said the resolution will air in February. Will we see little clues and hints pertaining to the case dropped in between now and then?

Zuiker: I don't think so. It's possible, but I don't think so. We're going to do an original [tonight], we'll do one repeat of the original as a soft launch to Second Life and then we'll do part two on February 6th, which is four days before the Grammys, so that specific recording artist has a benefit. And the great thing about it is on February 7th, right when we wrap the case up, something will happen in [Second Life] world that will be catastrophic and actually re-launch the narrative.

CSI Files: In the show, Second Life or both?

Zuiker: In Second Life [only]. I think two cracks in a season is pretty ambitious. We're definitely committing to that but again, we don't want to turn the show into the Second Life show. But it's going to be very interesting how the young demo reacts to the show tomorrow night. I talked to Nina Tassler at CBS and she seemed very excited that the young demo would really latch on. The press we've received over the course of the past month has been phenomenal--the Times talking about it, a week later was the two page spread in TV Guide.

In the meeting for how to launch the media plan for how to launch this Second Life, you literally had the heads of 15 different departments in the same room. That's really when it hit me; I was like, "Wow, TV's definitely changing." It wasn't a couple of creatives and myself; it was literally Current, Media, Development, Paramount, CBS, Second Life, Web, Online, Interactive, Mobile--everyone was there. The conversation we had was, "How do we do this?" When you think about it, [it's] an eight million dollar investment for Electric Sheep and literally I would say a low six-figure launch of the world--it's a very expensive and ambitious launch to learn about this space of cross-platforming. The most exciting thing for me--of course we're trying to break new ground in television, I just want to see what happens when you invite 16 million viewers and a group from Second Life to the same party. The servers either all melt down or it takes on a life of its own. It's incredibly exciting.

CSI Files: Will CBS be watching closely to see what the response to Second Life is on the net after the episode airs?

Zuiker: I think first and foremost their primary concern is ratings, if there's the demographic pop or a household pop based on the press we got. I'm even getting up at 5:30 in the morning to do radio. We are blowing out every single possible media outlet, from blogging to online to on air promos to doing radio to talking to you to you name it, just trying to give us the biggest bang for the buck and see if people listening will respond. I believe the future of TV is really eventizing television, making things an event. The Quentin Tarantino two hour [episode], the "Will Jorja [Fox, Sara Sidle] return? Yes or No in the premiere," the Second Life show [tonight] is event television. And in a world where the TV is competing with ancillary devices for people's attention, TV needs to eventize itself even more to where you don't want to be the one who missed it and have to be told it. You need to see it in the moment.

CSI Files: Despite the fact that the franchise has been on the air for 8 years, it's still able to keep current, garnering millions of viewers and getting plenty of press. How does the franchise continue to thrive despite competition after all this time?

Zuiker: I think what's important is that we haven't lost our game plan. The game plan is to do great mysteries from week to week, evolve our characters and evolve the franchise in the way we tell stories--the topics of the stories we're telling then feel current. That's the most important thing we're doing. We have to evolve to keep the franchise healthy, but we've been the ones for a long time that have brought new things to television, new storylines, new worlds that people had never seen before. And what makes it tougher in this environment--we didn't have this problem five years ago--is it's hard to impress the viewer nowadays. There are many different portals you can surf, or get involved in social networking, other sites like MySpace and Facebook can be given content that will blow your mind in a matter of two minutes give you that feeling of, "I've seen this--let me share it with somebody." Five years ago, it was, "There's this plushies and furries thing on CSI you've got to watch--TiVO it or go buy the DVD." Now you can find plushies and furries stuff all day long in a million different topics in two minutes, and suddenly, TV with a lag time finds itself trying to catch up and impress the viewer. It's very, very difficult.

CSI Files: The CSI shows still manage to fare pretty well in the ratings battles.

Zuiker: We're still doing it. For the masses, we're still doing it. But you're talking about a younger generation that doesn't know that there were three or four networks twenty years ago that people watched. This younger generation has grown up [believing] that TV is the same as the web, the same as the phone, the same as the iPod--any device anywhere, anyplace and any show. And that's how television is definitely changing--it's what the [proposed writers'] strike's all about, what the future of TV's about and the industry's going to have to figure out a way, as things are going that way, to keep the audience's attention and make sure that the primary device in people's lives really is the television set.

CSI Files: Were you the mastermind behind the new CSI: New York cast photo, which is a homage to the iconic 1932 photograph "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper"?

Zuiker: Peter Lenkov had the idea to have our cast members emulate the Charles C. Ebbets photo. I art directed it--placed all the actors in specific positions. Every couple tells a story. The devil's in the details in that shot. Hammerback (Robert Joy) is eating lunch with gloves in his pocket looking at an X-ray, Adam Ross is on the other end, a lap top in his lap with the Bluetooth earpiece on, with the cool shoes, then you get into Lindsay (Anna Belknap) and Danny (Carmine Giovinazzo) with her shoes off [grabbing] his cuff with her bare feet, he's offering her a sandwich--if you look very closely they're shaped like a heart.

CSI Files: Do any of those things hint at what's to come for the characters?

Zuiker: There's no hidden deeper storyline in the photo. I wanted the story of the photograph to tell a story about the characters. That reflects their love interest. With Gary and Melina, it's old media meets new media. Gary's got The New York Times in his hand, he's lowering it to look at Melina's new iPhone, which she's probably reading The New York Times online. And Don Flack (Eddie Cahill)--you have the streetwise kid cleaning his gun with the scientist Sheldon Hawkes (Hill Harper), holding a flashlight to the system as he cleans his gun. Every twosome tells a story and then you bring out of it what you may. Much like the Charles C. Ebbets photo, which was a sign of its times--those guys were drinking whiskey on the beams and smoking. It's the same kind of thing with technology and our characters in that photograph. We went into it to iconocize our cast members in CSI: New York by doing a homage to a wonderful, timeless photo.

CSI Files: How is your other project, The Man coming along?

Zuiker: We're going to script right now--it's called "The Untitled LL Cool J Project"--we're not sure we're going to land on "The Man" at the end of the day. LL Cool J is in charge of a major crime task force in L.A. County. He will have a crackerjack team that will work under him that will specialize in specific things, crime solving. It will be a hip, cool, young show. It will have a little pinch of James Bond. I think it will be a wonderful little show for CBS and hopefully America feels the same.

CSI Files: What are your thoughts on the possible upcoming writers' strike and how it would affect the CSI shows?

Zuiker: It's a very complicated topic. There's two sides to the argument. The one side is: if the networks pick up the risk, they should get the reward. If the networks get involved and an expensive TV show doesn't go, they don't go back and charge the writers. All the risk for the reward. The other side is: television is changing and content is being aired on different devices and being monetized and the writers are taking the position that if the network is making something from that, so should the writers. The writers are creating new content for one device but it's being used for multiple devices and being monetized and one can argue that the writers will be part of that also. There's a compelling argument on both sides.

I think we'll definitely strike, I think it will be a lot longer than three to six months but it will be necessary going forward because television is changing. It's coming at a very tough time because television is in some ways on the chopping block. It's sort of hinting towards extinction in a weird way. I think the video music channels didn't take care of music videos over the course of ten years and we all woke up one day and the music industry was gone. What that did intrinsically was that it separated the listener from the artist. There was no connection because it was just a database to download music [on the web], and I think that the industry really suffered because of that.

If we do the same with television, and ignore the power of television, we may wake one day and not have TV the way it used to be. That would be a shame because that box still unifies families under one roof. It is a resource of entertainment. You may not feel it now, but it's going to be that way five, ten years from now. One of two things will happen: a) the TV will become a radio, a secondary, cursory device in the home or b) the television will become the primary communication source in the household to the point that it will deal with the touchscreen, online, audio, MySpace, recordings, web, chose commercials you want to see--it will be completely interactive and customized towards you, and become the primary communication/entertainment box in the household.

CSI Files: So you feel a strike is definitely on the horizon?

Zuiker: I would say there's a very good chance there will be a strike this year. What's important to note is this: everyone benefits when television is healthy. When the networks are healthy, we all benefit. Nobody wants a strike. But television has changed so much, it's impossible not to give everybody a piece of the pie going forward. I think the smart approach is to empower the creators and executive producers that put great content on the air, to go into other devices and worlds to create other content for other platforms and encourage them to do that because they'll pay for it. I think what will end up happening is that you'll have great television on all different platforms because we all feel part of it.

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.