"NCIS," prime time’s most-watched drama, is celebrating a milestone: Three hundred episodes this week. With 20.4 million viewers at present, based on the Live + 7 Day data from Nielsen, and a confirmed renewal for a least two more seasons, the truly extraordinary "NCIS" could probably last another 300 episodes. It has even been cited as "the most watched drama series in the world" for the last two years, according to Eurodata TV Worldwide and The Monte Carlo Television Festival.
The end is not near.
But like anything of a dramatic nature airing on CBS (including "CSI" in its heyday), the reality of "NCIS — despite the enormity of its success — is the lack of buzz. Millions of people are watching it, yet it never really enters the cultural conversation. You don’t go to Comic-Con and see a larger-than-life billboard featuring Mark Harmon and company. Nor is the proverbial watercooler buzzing with banter. And that begs the question: Is "NCIS" — and the countless other generic, but highly rated network dramas ( "Law & Order: SVU," the "Chicago" franchise on NBC or basically anything on CBS) — more beneficial to a broadcaster than a lowrated critical darling like like "American Crime" on ABC? Or anything with a superhero?
If variety really is the spice of life, the safe answer is yes and no. It certainly does not hurt to house a number of cookie-cutter crime-solvers that resonate with total viewers year after year. CBS, after all, is home to many of these buzz-free scripted dramas (including "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "NCIS: New Orleans"). And that means it will stand proud at its upfront presentation on Wednesday, May 18, in New York and rightfully proclaim it is the most-watched network. In front of a room full of advertisers and media buyers, that is not a bad thing.
But come the annual Primetime Emmy Awards next fall, 10 nominations for traditionally ratings-challenged "American Crime" on ABC in season one (and one win for Regina King for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie) will likely result in a sophomore season of multiple nominations. "NCIS," in its first 12 seasons, has garnered only three Emmy nominations (including two for Stunt Coordination). And no one at any Comic-Con gathering across the country is about to attend dressed as Pauley Perrette or David McCallum. Arrow and The Flash — yes.
"NCIS," in addition, may rank third in total viewers in primetime this season (behind "Sunday Night Football" on NBC and "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS, and ahead of Fox’s red-hot "Empire"), but it falls to No. 15 overall in adults from 18 to 49. It is averaging a 3.1 rating in the demo versus a 7.3 for "Empire," which ranks second for the season overall (behind football).
Obviously, any network would certainly welcome a success like "NCIS," which at this rate can even pass "Law & Order" and "Gunsmoke" as the longest running scripted drama in the history of television. But advertisers seek youth, and they want to be associated with a "sexy" entry like an "Empire" or an "American Crime Story." And while 20 million viewers each week may be an enormous amount of eyeballs, it may not be the right eyeballs for every advertiser.
Naturally, the success of any primetime schedule is a combination of ingredients. So never undervalue the importance of a superhero. Remember that advertisers like to be associated with acclaim (which is all the more reason to expect a third season pick-up for "American Crime Story"). And don’t expect the Lyons clan to come anywhere near the 300-episode mark.
There are also advantages to staying under the cultural radar, a la a drama like "NCIS." Thirteen seasons in, "NCIS" shows no signs of slipping out of the top 10. It has already spun-off two successful clones. And the three series combined means CBS has three fewer hours per week of its schedule to worry about.
As for "NCIS," let me conclude with a reminder of the drama’s origins. Debuting on September 2003 and originally called "NAVY: NCIS," the show would never have been born had CBS not revived parent series "Jag." That show, featuring David James Elliott as Lt. Commander Harmon "Hamm" Rabb, Jr., debuted on NBC in September 1995. After one marginally rated season, NBC opted against a sophomore renewal. CBS wisely stepped in, reviving "Jag" in January 1997. And NBC’s monumental blunder will be saved for an eventual discussion of the worst programming decisions in the history of television.
There are many!