Murder, they wrote. And keep on writing. And the viewing public stays tuned.
The original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been the No.1 show in Nielsen ratings 12 weeks out of the season, followed closely by the increasingly popular Without a Trace and regularly accompanied in the top 20 by the Miami and New York CSI spinoffs, NCIS, Cold Case, Criminal Minds and the Criminal Intent and SVU versions of Law & Order.
For the week of ratings ending Feb. 5, skewered by the Super Bowl, whose offerings snagged the top three spots, CSI managed to come in at No. 6, followed by Without a Trace at No. 8, CSI: Miami at No. 9, CSI: NY at No. 11, Criminal Minds at No. 16, Numb3rs in a tie at No. 17, NCIS in a tie at No. 19, followed by a tie of Bones and Close to Home. Nearly half of the top 20 were procedurals.
Like many observers, William Petersen, the veteran stage actor whose lead role in the original CSI has won him TV superstardom, cites the trial of O.J. Simpson.
"People were beginning to get interested in forensics, and then O.J. hit for a year, and everybody got swept up in it," he says. "The more they watched, they got the feeling these scientists and witnesses were speaking this DNA language they didn't get, a whole vernacular they didn't understand. When he was found not guilty, they were confused. And they wanted more information."
But "the O.J. factor" might well win a not-guilty verdict. The Law & Order franchise, while not as steeped in forensic detail as the CSI trio, nevertheless deals with criminal investigation and justice. "People forget," notes Dick Wolf, executive producer of the Law & Order lineup, "that Law & Order goes back to 1990. We were around a lot earlier than O.J."
Indeed, as early as 1990, with the arrival of the Kay Scarpetta novels of Patricia Cornwell, set in a Richmond, Va., coroner's office, forensic fascination found its way into fiction.
The CSI forensic emphasis has helped make microscopic, anatomical photography and geeky, scientific lingo omnipresent on TV. But, Petersen says that, ironically, the first CSI came about as something original, unlike any other TV crime show to date. Now widely imitated, it began as one of a kind.
"People at the network wanted nothing to do with a TV show about fingerprint dusters," Petersen says. "But this kid named Anthony Zuiker, who was running the tram at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, had a friend in CSI-type investigations in Las Vegas, and he came up with this idea."
Timing helped. "The culture had just been through this postmodern period of green tea and Buddhism, with everybody asking the big questions," Petersen says. "People were lost. These guys had answers. You see a close-up of a broken toenail inside a shoe, and that becomes an important clue. Instead of the big things, it's about the littlest things. And they become the most important things. It's a new way of perceiving, and I think that spiritual aspect of the show is why people keep watching."
Wolf has another view. In explaining the success of Law & Order, he says, "sending people to prison is no joke, and how people do that is interesting."
He refuses to see CSI or even Law & Order as anything but new clothing on an old dress form.
"TV is not about ideas," Wolf says bluntly. "It's about execution. And writing and casting. That's why most of TV drama's biggest stars have been character actors, not romantic leads. Peter Falk. Telly Savalas. Angela Lansbury. They can inhabit a role for years, and that's the TV challenge. I like to say a successful movie lasts 110 minutes. A successful TV series lasts 110 hours."
"I think the public has always been fascinated by crime," says Mark Gordon, the enterprising producer behind Criminal Minds and Grey's Anatomy, the ABC medical soap opera many see as a crime-streak antidote. "Crime in American fiction dates from the '20s, '30s and '40s in potboiler novels and film noir, not to mention tabloid journalism. In the past few years, TV just figured out a way to capitalize on that in a different manner."
Despite this season's ratings bonanza for crime shows, there are signs the inevitable shift in the wind is stirring. After resting at the top of the heap all fall, CSI lost the No. 1 ratings spot in recent weeks to the return of American Idol.
Wolf is monkeying with his formula with his latest, Conviction, premiering in March on NBC and set in a district attorney's office. But the focus is on the regular characters, not the procedure, and we learn all about the personal lives and career worries of these young attorneys on the job.
Besides the occasional need for tweaking, Wolf says procedurals aren't going anywhere.
"Crime is a constantly renewable resource. Every day people continue to kill each other in bizarre and unfathomable ways. Even if murder goes down by double digits, there are still thousands of people killed in this country every year and killers who warrant prosecution."
Sid Smith writes for the Chicago Tribune.