CSI: Changing Times on the Program of the Decade

When CBS put its fall schedule together in 2000, it paired two new dramas on Friday night. At 8:00 was the remake of the '60s classic The Fugitive, about which observers had high hopes given the success of the Harrison Ford film. At 9:00 was a show whose name was so obscure that it had to be explained by a subtitle, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Even in the higher viewership days of 2000, Friday at 9:00 was not where a network would place a likely hit. CSI had a powerhouse producer (albeit one with no history of TV success) in Jerry Bruckheimer and one Emmy winner in its cast, Marg Helgenberger; but its star was William Petersen, who had been virtually absent from the pop culture radar screen since his starring role in the first Hannibal Lecter film,Manhunter, in 1986.

But CSI actually had higher ratings than The Fugitive in its first week, finishing in the Nielsen top ten. Despite the lack of hype, its momentum continued, and while The Fugitive didn't make it past its first season, CSI became a fixture at the top of the Nielsen ratings, where it remains to this day. Now in its eighth season, CSI is the oldest program that regularly appears in the Nielsen top ten, and for most of the 2007 fall campaign it has been trading off the top spot with Dancing with the Stars. At a point in its life cycle where almost all programs would be showing at least a little weakness, CSI has seen little ratings erosion other than what has become typical for all network programming.

CSI is now so much a part of the permanent landscape of prime time, like 60 Minutes or The Simpsons, that it doesn't get talked about too much anymore -- it's just always "there." Certainly no cast of a long-running hit has ever been deemed less interesting to gossip columnists or entertainment reporters. You'll see the sixth-billed member of the Gossip Girl cast on the cover of People before you see Petersen there. But as the show faces a milestone today, this is a good time to reflect on its significance.

In terms of its ratings success, longevity, and influence, there seems little doubt that CSI will go down as the program of the decade, only the show that precedes it on Thursday nights, Survivor, can possibly claim otherwise. For starters, CSI was primarily responsible for ending what had been one of the essential features of network warfare for nearly two decades: the dominance of NBC on Thursday night. When a young show that inherited its audience from CSI, Without a Trace, began outdrawing the show that had preceded CSI as the top drama on television, ER, it was clear the war was over and there was a new king on Thursday. ABC would eventually try the same strategy against CSI, moving Grey's Anatomy to Thursday at 9:00. But while it was touch-and-go there for a few months, and Grey's regularly tops all shows in the 18-49 demographic, CSI seems to have emerged victorious in the big picture. And Grey's has not shown anywhere the same ability as CSI to act as a lead-in for the 10:00 hour, which CBS dominates no matter what they put there.

The influence of CSI goes without saying, as it is one of the small number of shows in history to literally change the identity of a network. The dominant genre in prime time in this decade is the procedural crime drama clearly inspired by CSI, all on CBS, and most of them produced by Bruckheimer. These shows all have a few things in common: unlike previous crime dramas that focused on uniformed cops or squad room detectives, CSI and its imitators (I'm speaking here of the Miami and New York spinoffs, NCIS, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, and Cold Case) deal with a certain type of specialized unit. There is typically a cast of six to eight regulars headed by a middle-aged male familiar from television (David Caruso, Mark Harmon) or, like Petersen was, slightly less familiar from films (Anthony LaPaglia, Gary Sinise).

CSI and the shows that followed in its wake came up with a new way to think about the procedural. Unlike Law & Order, a show so plot-driven that it could change cast members annually and not skip a beat, CSI distinguished its characters as individuals. All had their own quirks, demons, and lives away from the workplace. But unlike programs such as ER and Hill Street Blues, where the job often seemed incidental to personal crises and bed hopping, CSI always put the case of the week front and center, with a satisfactory resolution at the end.

CSI is probably a strong enough concept to survive cast changes, witness the success of the two spinoffs. But until now, its producers and CBS have never had to wonder. The original cast from the pilot episode -- Petersen, Helgenberger, George Eads, Gary Dourdan, and Paul Guilfoyle -- is still intact. Jorja Fox joined the cast for the second episode, and her Sara Sidle character becomes the first major departure from the show tonight. Sara's disenchantment with the unending parade of crime has been one of the themes to the season so far, so tonight's episode figures to be emotional. Her relationship with Petersen's Grissom, the revelation of which may have been the biggest shocker ever for a show that deals with corpses, was controversial for a subgroup of fans who worried that Grey's Anatomy might scare the producers into soaping it up, but it has been handled in a way that respects what we've learned about both characters over eight seasons.

Leaving CSI could not have been an easy decision for Fox, who bounced around TV for years, most notably in a somewhat thankless semi-regular role on ER, before striking gold in Las Vegas. She may not be the last to leave. Petersen, in particular, has made noises about turning in his bugs, so it might behoove fans to keep looking for little signs, such as Grissom's confession to Anthony LaPaglia's Malone character at the end of last week's Without a Trace crossover, that CSI might soon be in for its biggest change yet.