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Sometimes, American viewers know a good thing when they see it: They made this series about fictional forensic detectives in Las Vegas a smash hit, spawning two spin-off series in less than five years while becoming a smash around the world. “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” was one of those shows that overcame early obstacles to create a new television franchise–and along the way, helped put CBS back on top during the first decade of the new century.

“CSI” was created by a Las Vegas native named Anthony Zuiker, who graduated from the city’s Chaparral High School in 1986 and later attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (The author of this piece also graduated from UNLV as part of the class of 1980-–receiving a degree in communication studies, and for better or worse going on to a career in broadcast journalism and occasional writing for television.)

During the 1990's, Zuiker was a tram shuttle driver at The Mirage hotel; he caught the eye of then-owner Steve Wynn, who promoted him to the resort’s advertising department. Around the same time, Zuiker wrote some monologue dialogue for an actor friend. Turns out the friend used the monologue, which caught the ear of a Hollywood agent. Zuiker was asked if he could write a screenplay. He came up with a script called “The Runner,” about an addicted gambler who works as an aide for a gangster. Although he received big money for the script, it never got produced. Still, he continued to write and his scripts came to the attention of action film producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who wanted an idea for a television series. Zuiker didn’t have one, but his wife liked a series on cable’s Discovery Channel about forensic detectives who used DNA and other evidence to solve “cold” murder cases. He arranged to go on drive-alongs with the real-live crime investigators from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and was convinced there was a series in the concept. So did Bruckheimer, who arranged a meeting with the head of Touchstone Studio (owned by the Walt Disney Company, which also owns the ABC network).

The studio’s head at the time, Steve McPherson (now head of ABC Entertainment), liked Zuiker’s pitch and set up a meeting with ABC executives. The network passed. But the script was sent to Nina Tassler, who was then the head of drama development at CBS. She thought the show could be a winner. What’s more, the network had a “pay or play” deal with well-regarded actor William Petersen. He told Tassler the “CSI” pilot was the one he wanted to do. Tassler then convinced CBS Entertainment chief Les Moonves to go ahead and develop the show. The pilot was barely finished and edited by the time Moonves was ready to decide the network’s fall 2000 schedule. As was his habit, Moonves made his final decisions the night before he would announce CBS’ prime-time schedule to advertisers. In that meeting was Phil Rosenthal, the executive producer of CBS’ hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” who was going to write some jokes for Moonves’ presentation.

As told in Bill Carter’s book about American television “Desperate Networks,” Moonves asked Rosenthal to look at several short clips of series he was considering for the schedule. One was a proposed detective show called “Homewood P.I.” starring Tony Danza of “Who’s The Boss” and “Taxi” fame. After the clip aired, Rosenthal said, “Isn’t it enough with this guy (Danza), already?” which upset several other programmers in the room. Then Moonves asked Rosenthal to look at the clip from “CSI.” The “Raymond” producer liked it, telling Moonves “Now this I would watch. This is cool.” Moonves seemed to agree; the next day, he announced “CSI” would air at 9:00 PM on Friday nights, after a much-touted remake of the 1960's classic “The Fugitive.”

'CSI' CastBut the problems weren’t over yet: Disney pulled its funding from “CSI” production (possibly because CBS bought it and ABC passed on it). Fortunately, CBS found a partner in Canada-based Alliance Atlantis, which agreed to split the cost of the series with the network’s CBS Productions. The real-life Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department crime lab is the second busiest in the nation (after the FBI labs just outside Washington, DC). On the fictional series, Dr. Gilbert “Gil” Grissom (Peterson) headed the night shift team of the Vegas CSI; Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is Grissom’s second-in-command who supported herself as an “exotic dancer” while in college. Others on the team included Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) as the audio and video analyst; Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) who analyses minerals and elements; Nicholas “Nick” Stokes (George Eads), a hair and fibre detective; and Homicide Captain James “Jim” Brass (Paul Guilfoyle), who was head of the CSI team before being moved to homicide; he keeps rein on Grissom and his team.

“CSI” was distinctive from the first episode, with fast cuts, graphic displays, and long displays of technical aspects–tricks that actually drew audiences to the show because they looked different from the competition. Producers also reconstructed the crime to help explain what happened and how. The show generally focused on a pair of cases for each episode. Many cases were solved during the hour; some remained open. But while gruesome, “CSI” was actually less violent than many police shows; it was the investigation that dominated the action, not the murder act itself. (“CSI” did get hammered by some religious and conservative groups for depicting murders involving sex fetishes and such.) Unlike many Las Vegas-based series, “CSI” knew there was a world away from the glamorous lights and casino action along the famed Strip; many of the cases took place in the suburbs and areas outside the city.

When “CSI” premiered on October 6th, 2000, it was overshadowed by its “Fugitive” lead-in. Critics liked the pilot episode and figured it would benefit from the show that aired before it. But everyone was surprised when “CSI” drew a larger audience than “The Fugitive”–and that audience continued to grow; by the end of 2000, “CSI” was a solid hit and the highest-rated fall series. (“The Fugitive” lasted just one year.)

CBS chief Moonves decided to go for the kill and moved “CSI” to Thursday nights (along with the hit reality series “Survivor”) in February 2001. Those two shows eventually spelled the end of NBC’s long dominance of Thursdays, as “CSI” drew audiences of 30 to 40 million every week. By 2003, it was the top-rated drama series in America and remained among the top five programs every season (usually behind “American Idol”).

'CSI Miami' CastLike NBC’s “Law & Order” franchise, CBS used “CSI” as a source that could be spun off into new programs. The first “CSI” clone came in September 2002 with “CSI: Miami”. David Caruso (the former John Kelly of “NYPD Blue”) made a successful return to series television as Horatio Cane, the head of the Miami-Dade (Florida) crime lab. (The pilot aired as part of a regular “CSI” episode in May 2002 and was successful enough to turn into a series.) Initially, Kim Delaney was cast as Megan Donner, the former head of the unit who clashed with Caine. After several episodes, Delaney left the series. Others in the cast included Emily Proctor as Detective Calleigh Duquesne; Adam Rodriguez as Detective Erik Delko; Khandi Alexander as medical examiner Alexx Woods; and Jonathan Togo as Detective Ryan Wolfe. “CSI: Miami” was an immediate hit and a consistent top ten series in the U.S. According to Reuters, “CSI: Miami” has become the most-watched American series around the world.

Horatio Caine helped set up the second “CSI” spin-off in an episode of “Miami” when he went to New York City. “CSI: New York” made its debut on September 22nd, 2004, with acclaimed actor Gary Sinise as Detective Mac Taylor and Melinda Kanakaredes (of “Providence” fame) as Detective Stella Bonasera. Other cast members included Hill Harper as Detective Sheldon Hawkes, Eddie Cahill as Homicide Detective Donald Flack Junior; and Anna Belknap as Detective Lindsay Monroe (starting in the second season).

'CSI New York' Cast“CSI: NY” went head-to-head with NBC’s venerable “Law & Order” on Wednesday nights for its first two seasons; NBC eventually blinked and moved “L&O;” to another night. But Moonves was unhappy with the tone of “CSI: New York” and ordered producers to “lighten” the dark, dreary stories, which turned out to be the most violent of the “CSI” trio. Despite those problems, “New York” became a solid Wednesday hit for CBS. During the first year, fans of “CSI: NY” were angry when CBS News interrupted the last few minutes of one episode to announce the death of Yasser Arafat. Moonves went ballistic; he fired the news producer responsible for interrupting the show and broadcast the entire episode again later in the week.

Another factor all three shows had was The Who–the band’s classic songs were themes for all three series. “Who Are You” was played over the opening credits of the original “CSI”; the “Miami” version used “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; and “New York” opened to the tune of “Baba O’Riley.”

It’s hard to predict what viewers will watch these days, but the “CSI” trio became hits the old-fashioned way: Compelling characters, interesting scripts and high production values. And sometimes (as with “CSI”), the viewing public gets it right.

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Review: Mike Spadoni, June 2007