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'NCIS' rides a wave of popularity

The quirky crime procedural keeps building on its loyal fan base and now its spinoff, 'NCIS: Los Angeles,' looks to be basking in the ratings love.

October 20, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez

Even though Robi Boscarino lives a world away, the 17-year-old Australian still manages to tune into CBS' "NCIS" seven nights a week. Earlier this month, the Perth resident visited the hit crime procedural's sound stages in Valencia and caught his favorite character, DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), in action.

"Back home, everybody likes him," said Boscarino, who has Hodgkin's lymphoma and whose big dream to visit the set was made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "He's one of the most popular TV actors, for sure. This is more than I expected, to be honest. I didn't expect him to be like he is in the character. He's very funny."

Boscarino is one of millions around the globe who has helped make the special agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service household names in such far-off places as France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and Sweden. And it seems like the United States has finally, and officially, caught on by making the show -- and its new spinoff "NCIS: Los Angeles" -- among the top scripted shows in prime time. Its seasonal averages, especially for an aging show and a newcomer that air back-to-back on a Tuesday night, are eye-popping: "NCIS" boasts 21 million, while "NCIS: Los Angeles" claims a robust 18 million.

"There are psychics all over town going, 'Didn't see that coming! Hard to call,' " Weatherly joked in his trailer, while eating a slice of cold pizza. "But it's a great feeling. It's like those movies about the racehorse that's not supposed to be -- we weren't bred in some Kentucky barn of some billionaire who has Arabian stallions. We're just a plow horse. But we run fast! It's one of those stories."

To be sure, "NCIS," a spinoff of "JAG," has never been a dud. The Navy crimes procedural premiered in 2003 and finished in 26th place its first year with 11.8 million viewers. The audience grew steadily, ranking in the top 20 during seasons 3, 4, and 5 -- standing strong against the mighty "American Idol" -- until it pushed ahead to fifth place last season, encouraging CBS executives to launch a spinoff. That new series is way ahead of the pack, even surpassing the success of "The Mentalist" last season.

"There's a saying we have, 'There's no happiness in this business, just relief,' " said CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler. "Let's just say I was extremely relieved when the first week's numbers came in."

Chris O' Donnell, who costars in "NCIS: Los Angeles" with LL Cool J, said he was not surprised by the growth of the original series, which introduced his show in the last two episodes of last season.

"After we did those two episodes last year, people obviously saw me in it and I was overwhelmed all summer by all the people who kept coming up to me and saying, 'I love that show. It's the only show I never miss," he said. "We've been very fortunate benefactors of being in a time slot right behind them and also to be given the original framework of the original show."

But as loyal as the "NCIS" fan base has been, the older-skewing series has never been a water cooler show among TV critics. Its median age is 56.6, though this season the drama also boasts a 28% boost in 18-to-49-year-old viewers, due, in part, to the success of the series in syndication on USA. "NCIS" is winning its time slot and ranks ninth among shows in that advertiser-coveted demographic this season.

"I think they're definitely pulling in a younger audience now because I know 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds that watch it," said 21-year-old Jennifer Scott, of Clifton, N.J., who discovered the show on USA. "For me, the main thing is the dynamic between the team members. They have this bond that is unbreakable. They're always there for each other no matter if it's good, bad, happy or sad."

When the Mark Harmon-led series launched, many fans were struck by the lightness in tone for a crime procedural. Margaret Walsh, 45, who moderates a fan site of 6,000 members from her home in Australia, still remembers the exchange that grabbed her in the pilot: "NCIS: Is that anything like CSI?" "Only if you're dyslexic."

"We're a very strange little show," agrees Weatherly, referring to its blend of mystery, romance, action and humor. "There's a real '80s and even '70s throwback feeling. You get a kind of 'Barney Miller' feel with it. It's not quite so grim and static and monotone and dour as a lot of crime shows."

Weatherly has a lot to do with that -- he likes to improvise. The actor and "NCIS" co-creator Don Bellisario (who was forced out after the fourth season) battled for much of the first season over Weatherly's penchant for ad libbing until Bellisario found himself admitting that it worked for the character.

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