Why ‘NCIS’ Was Unorthodox for CBS at the Time of Its Inception

NCIS has been on the air for 17 seasons and counting; the show is a CBS pride and joy, attracting millions of viewers each episode — all spanning the globe and accounting for various demographics.

The original Jag spinoff has even transformed into a franchise, including NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans. And, though the Naval crime drama has come to define the network, there was a time when its layout and formula were radical for the network — an unorthodox risk.

‘NCIS’ was not in line with other CBS shows when it premiered
While NCIS is a crime drama — a genre in line with CBS’ other hit shows of the early 2000s — the pilot episode was quite “radical,” as Collider notes. In the early 2000s, shows like CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, and Cold Case defined the network. All featured largely episodic installments, with a greater focus on busting the bad guy within the hour than developing a character over multi-episode arcs, or multi-seasonal storylines. The producers behind NCIS wanted to go in a different direction. Collider explains:
…Producers of NCIS knew they wanted to focus more on character development, requiring more of a season-long arc. Also, filmmakers knew they wanted a super-different shooting style, using fast cuts and mini-montages.

Collider

NCIS features several fast cuts, as well as mini-montages that dive into a character’s past, often providing insight into how they came to be who they are. The montages often relay how Jethro came to boast a hard exterior, how Ziva came to develop a hesitant-to-trust mentality, and so on.

‘NCIS’ took a risk that paid off
The above approach was largely unheard of at the time, as most shows avoided long-gestating developments. Making each episodic largely independent of one another allowed for new viewers and old viewers to jump in and out at any moment, without wondering “what did I miss?” or “why are they acting like that?”

While NCIS allows viewers to come and go, there are larger storylines and personal developments that remain out of reach to the casual viewer. For example, Gibbs’ past marriages, struggles with emotional vulnerability, and desire to follow “rules” that protect him from pain all hit harder for a committed viewer.


Though the pilot episode for NCIS was radical, it often takes radical change to see unparalleled success. The producers’ decisions evidently paid off, as the show remains one of the most popular primetime procedural on TV. As the years go by, the fans keep coming back for more. And, they come back to see Gibbs.

Viewers come back to see Gibbs interact with old (McGee) and new (Bishop and Torres) agents alike. Because of the show’s commitment to character, it remains ever-relevant. Changes do not rock the boat, leading to a loss of viewers, but rather inspire new developments and new interpersonal relationships that only further draw in existing and new viewers.