The Plight of NCIS: TV's Biggest Drama Gets No Respect

The CBS procedural receives only a fraction of the media attention paid to the shows it regularly outdraws.
Phil McCarten / Reuters

After an Olympics-related hiatus for much of February, most of TV’s biggest hits returned to the schedule with new episodes last week, accompanied by a tsunami of media hype. The VoiceScandalModern Family and The Blacklist was among them, alongside major episodes of shows that had continued airing through the Olympics, including The BachelorThe Walking Dead and American Idol. Yet as usual, one perpetually overlooked show topped them all last week, with an audience of more than 17 million: NCIS.

Now in its 11th season—its 250th episode airs Tuesday, Mar. 4—the CBS procedural, about a team of special agents (led by Mark Harmon) from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, quietly continues to be one of the biggest shows on TV (second only to The Big Bang Theory, which had 17.73 million viewers last week). Yet it receives only a fraction of the media attention (including magazine covers and talk show appearances) and respect paid to all of those other shows that it soundly trounces, week in and week out.

At this point, the show’s producers are resigned to NCIS’ fate as the Rodney Dangerfield of TV shows (i.e. gets no respect). “I try to stay really focused on the fact that as much as I would love for our cast and crew to get some attention, at the end of the day it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards,” the show’s executive producer and showrunner Gary Glasberg says. “And I have to appreciate at the end of the day that although they haven’t gotten that kind of attention, that 20 million people every week are watching. The fact that I’m getting 20 million viewers in this landscape is kind of crazy.”

It’s actually more than 35 million weekly, once you factor in the show’s “live plus 7” rating (which includes DVR and VOD use in the seven days following the initial “live” tune-in, and pushes the CBS viewership past 23 million viewers) and its syndicated airings on USA. That figure puts NCIS in the same league as TV behemoths like ER and Dallas. “It’s like 1980s television,” says Glasberg. “This is an example of what television used to be, and I’m not sure that another show can replicate it.”

Glasberg credits the show’s syndicated run on USA for goosing the CBS ratings, which have surged since the sixth season (they jumped more than 3 million alone during 2008-2009, its first season in syndication, and have hovered around the 20 million mark ever since). “It’s a rare scenario where I really think at the end of the day, there were a lot of people who had never given NCIS a chance,” he says. “They watched it in syndication and suddenly they’re saying, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll watch Tuesday night as well.’”

In addition to its hit United States run, NCIS is licensed in more than 200 territories around the world, and dubbed or subtitled in more than 20 languages. Glasberg says the show’s international audience comes into play “a lot” when developing storylines. “We talk about the fact that there’s an NCIS office in every major port in the world,” he says. “And when you go overseas and you talk to people who watch the show, you really get an understanding of just what a connection exists with these characters. So I think about that quite a bit, and from a production standpoint, we try to represent internationally when we can. It’s important to understand who our audience is.”

Unlike, say, every other long-running series on TV, NCIS is showing no signs of losing steam as it powers through its 11th season; if anything, the franchise is stronger than ever. The show, which began as a spinoff of JAG, has itself spawned a hit spinoff (NCIS: Los Angeles) with a second spinoff, based in New Orleans, in the works for next season. “I keep waiting for some indication that things are starting to slow down, and it doesn’t happen,” says Glasberg. “Will it happen? Of course. We’re really enjoying ourselves and we’ll make it last as long as we can.”

Whether the media notices or not.

Presented by

Jason Lynch is the former television editor for People magazine.

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