TBI Interview: Anthony Zuiker, investigating CSI

Anthony Zuiker is the executive producer of, arguably, the most popular TV drama franchise in the world. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY. Now in its seventh season on CBS, the original CSI has been the top-rated drama on US TV for five years. Zuiker tells Stewart Clarke about the shows and why this is a golden era for TV.

Anthony Zuiker is remarkably positive about the state of TV drama. That might not be a surprise given he is the man behind CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but his optimism stretches beyond his show and to the genre as a whole. "I believe we’re in a golden era of TV, there has never been such high-quality TV drama," he says. "Many [shows] far surpass the level of entertainment in movies nowadays. It’s feature television, they are mini-movies."

To put the rise and rise of scripted drama in recent times into context, the producer points to wider world events, which have shaped tastes and the way we watch TV.

"After 9/11 a lot of Americans and people in England began to change their viewing habits. When 9/11 happened a lot of people started to look for escapism. There was a huge surge of people buying large TV screens for the home and iPods – tuning out of what was happening in the world."

High-end TV dramas like CSI, Lost and Heroes now have movie-like production values and one thing that has excited CSI fans is the prospect of a CSI feature film, but Zuiker is cool on the idea. "I don’t think so, it’s possible, but we’d need to find a [good] reason to do it. Home theatre has boomed and with the quality of TV [programmes] there’s no reason to rush out to the movie theatre."

Zuiker has come a long way. Just over eight years ago he was an aspiring writer working as a tram driver at Las Vegas’ Mirage Hotel. Having penned the Las Vegas-based gambling movie The Runner in the late 90s, he went on to strike TV gold with a script for a series about forensic investigators. In 2000 CSI was born and Zuiker, with fellow CSI executive producers Carol Mendelsohn and Ann Donahue then created CSI: Miami in 2002. He is now show-runner on the third show, CSI: NY, which debuted in 2004.

At launch in 2000, CBS executives said the show would be deemed a success if it got close to its spot’s previous ratings. When it beat those and was one of the top ten shows that week Zuiker said he knew he was on to something. "Then we were moved to Thursday at 9pm and Thursday is a big money day for advertisers," he explains. "To move us was very bold, especially as we were against ER and a strong NBC, but then it got even bigger."

Then the idea of moving cities came about. "[CBS boss] Les Moonves said to me ‘pick a city’," Zuiker says. "And I thought let’s go out of the desert and into the water, we wanted it to be very different to Vegas." New York followed in a similar fashion. "Over dinner, Les Moonves again said ‘pick a city’ and this time I said New York. The level of thinking was: you go to Vegas to escape, to Miami to be seen and to New York to change," Zuiker says.

With Vegas, Miami and New York all in production, the CSI man says three is enough for the time being and the focus is now on making sure each of those works. CSI:NY got off to a rocky start with many feeling it was too dark. Moonves called Zuiker after the debut episode and said he didn’t like it – and changes were made. To put it in Zuiker’s words there were ‘growing pains’ but the show was reworked in season two when the producers ‘turned some of the lights on’, and incorporated the city itself more.

But what about the other forensics shows that have sprung up in the wake of CSI, do they grow the genre or devalue it? "The knock-offs came very quickly, but when it was knocked off, at the end of the day, people came back to CSI," says Zuiker. "But the other shows do reach an audience and chip away at the mystique of forensic drama and the brand."

There are now almost 300 hours of CSI and the franchise is a cash cow. Last year Alliance Atlantis detailed the upside of licensing a selection of second-window rights for the franchise. Rights holders include RTL in Germany, Five in the UK, TF1 in France, Telecinco in Spain, Nine Network in Australia and CTV in Canada. The deals were worth some $250 million. But the show’s producers say that as well as being a big earner, it is important for the drama genre.

"If you talk to anyone at CBS they will tell you the winners pay for all the losers. Obviously, CSI as a franchise is a winner. Not only is it financially important, it’s important to the integrity of the medium," Zuiker said ahead of the launch of season three of CSI: NY. "Television used to be a second class citizen before CSI came along in terms of the way it looks and the quality of the actors that are willing to go into it."

With the media attention surrounding the US series, producers say it’s refreshing that international audiences come to the show purely for the entertainment value and not because of column inches generated by the attendant media circus. But what next for the franchise?

"We’ve killed people in so many ways," Zuiker notes. More innovative crimes and crime solving is on the way along with more development of the key characters. Meantime, Zuiker is working on a new series, The Man, which will star rapper LL Cool J as an undercover LA cop by night and father of three by day. He is also rewriting The Harlem Globetrotters’ Story for Columbia Pictures.