Producers: How 'CSI' Outstripped 'The Fugitive'

By Caillan
November 20, 2004 - 4:36 AM

When CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted on CBS five years ago, network executives thought its lead-in, a remake of the 1960s series The Fugitive, would be the hit new show on everyone's lips.

"We put all of our promotion dollars into The Fugitive," CBS chairman Leslie Moonves told the Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond. "We were just hoping for CSI to hang on and retain a bit of the lead-in." The network had acquired the series after it was turned down by ABC, NBC and Fox, and even then it was the last series added to CBS' 2000-2001 line-up. "We obviously had no idea then that this show would mark the sea change, along with Survivor, that turned the network around," said CBS president Nancy Tellem.

When CSI successfully ran away with the The Fugitive's thunder, no one was more suprised than the show's producers. "Our first week out of the box, we were No. 7 in the Nielsens," said creator and executive producer Anthony Zuiker, who was only a rookie in the television world when CSI debuted. "We were told off the record that if we retained 80% of The Fugitive lead-in, we'd be considered a success. From the first night out, we beat them outright." Fellow executive producer, Ann Donahue, an Emmy Award-winning veteran of Picket Fences, China Beach and Murder One, couldn't believe the figures she was seeing. "Beating The Fugitive was amazing enough. But to be the No. 1 show for the night — which we were — was this huge thing."

What enticed viewers to watch yet another crime show? It wasn't simply another crime show. "It was kind of like we woke television up," Zuiker said, praising the vision of executive producer and regular director Danny Cannon, who helmed the "Pilot" and numerous other episodes since. "We altered the visual style, the pace, the energy and the direction of drama; that all really came from Danny. He single-handedly changed the look of all dramas in this generation."

Cannon returned the compliment: "The style is one thing. But the only reason CSI worked like it did from the start is the writing. I can shoot and shoot and shoot all day, but if I don't have the scripts, I've got nothing. I just found a different way of telling the stories."

With a new mystery to unravel every week complete with whiz-bang special effects, it would seem that the characters almost play second fiddle to the science. Unlike Law & Order and NYPD Blue, which have had a revolving door of cast members during their long runs, CSI's core cast has remained intact — although that almost changed this summer, when Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle) and George Eads (Nick Stokes) were fired then re-hired during a salary dispute.

Executive producer and showrunner Carol Mendelsohn disagreed with such a notion. "Even though it's procedural, it's still driven by these characters. I mean, on the characters' bios on our official Internet site, we list these birthdays for them. I can't tell you how many birthday cards we get e-mailed to us from fans. These people are all good-looking science geeks. And they're heroes."

To read the complete interview with Zuiker, Donahue, Mendelsohn and numerous other CSI cast members, pick up the November 18 edition of The Hollywood Reporter, or read the online version of their CSI feature here. Thanks to Al Fornos for this!

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