The CBS military procedural “NCIS” doesn’t have has many Emmys as “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.” But in its 11th season, it continues to beat the competition in one key category. It has more people tuning in to watch.
“NCIS” remains the most watched show on Tuesday’s TV lineup, and the number one scripted show on television. After more than 250 episodes and multiple spinoff series, it was just picked up for its 12th season, but it’s lonely at the top. The show has enjoyed what “USA Today” called an “invisible success.”
Peruse EW’s TV section or the A.V. Club’s TV Club and you will see many articles about “The Walking Dead,” “Mad Men,” and “Game of Thrones,” but “NCIS” and its spinoffs get barely a passing mention. TV journalists gravitate toward shows that are less traditional and more morally complex.
Extra media attention also tends to go to shows that have notable behind-the-scenes controversies, such as NBC’s “Community,” which recently welcomed back the iconoclastic show runner Dan Harmon after he was fired a year earlier.
“I have to appreciate at the end of the day that although [‘NCIS’ cast and crew] haven’t gotten that kind of attention, that 20 million people every week are watching,” “NCIS” showrunner Gary Glasberg does told “The Atlantic.” “The fact that I’m getting 20 million viewers in this landscape is kind of crazy.”
Not just for older viewers.
In one episode of “Glee” in 2012, FOX writers dissed “NCIS,” its timeslot competitor, by having a character quip, “My nana watches that!” Stereotypes suggest that “NCIS” owes its popularity to older viewers, a dismissive and somewhat ageist theory. But the numbers do not agree.
Airing on Tuesdays at 8, “NCIS” regularly attracts more viewers in the 18-49 demographic than “Glee” and “The Originals,” both on at the same time, and more than “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “New Girl,” which air in the following hour.
Everybody seems to be watching the show that nobody seems to be talking about.
How the show stays on top.
Glasberg gave the “New York Post” his take on why the show strikes such a chord with audiences:
“There’s humor, there’s compassion, there’s suspense, there’s a mystery that’s solved in the span of an episode. I think it delivers on many different levels, and it’s satisfying. It’s like comfort food. It really works in terms of giving people an entertaining experience.”
The show’s reach is wide: in addition to its new episodes on CBS, the show has a syndicated run on USA and is licensed in more than 200 territories internationally, translated in more than 20 languages.
Lovable characters keep people coming back every week. One of those is played by none other than 1986’s Sexiest Man Alive, Mark Harmon, who has another theory to explain the show’s success: its ambitions never exceeded its reach. He once made the assessment that his show “wasn’t good enough to get all that noticed and wasn’t bad enough to get canceled.”
Making waves has never been the show’s primary objective. As one of the more conservative shows on television, it tends to lean pro-troops, pro-America, pro-Israel, and anti-bad-guys. It wears its morals on its sleeve and is not interested in making its viewers uncomfortable.
As the “Wall Street Journal” put it, “‘NCIS’ isn’t young, hip or edgy, it just has the most viewers.”
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