On the Air
'NCIS' spells success for CBS
Against 'Idol' juggernaut, drama holds its own

New Orleans Times-Picayune

Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Dave Walker
HOLLYWOOD -- The Fox network's competitors have taken to calling "American Idol" The Death Star.
Last week's premiere drew an average of more than 37 million viewers, the show's second-largest audience ever, eclipsed only by the 2003 sing-off between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard.
Ratings-wise, it reduced the competition to a pile of smoking rubble.
All, that is, except CBS's "NCIS," which approximately held its season-average audience of about 15 million.
"Even though the lights were off everywhere else . . . we have our deflector shields up," CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said at the Television Critics Association January press tour. "The truth is, ('Idol') is a force to be reckoned with, but with the likes of 'NCIS' . . . it's a very competitive situation."
"We're not 'Idol'-proof, but maybe kind of 'Idol'-resistant," added Kelly Kahl, CBS's chief of scheduling and program planning. "The other guys get kind of . . ."
"Vaporized," Tassler interjected.
"And we hang in pretty well," Kahl said.
A "JAG" spinoff now in its fourth season, "NCIS" is a military-justice procedural that had a great run of Nielsen numbers in the fall and now appears embedded in the Top 20.
"NCIS" was the most-watched show of one rerun-larded December week, which is kind of astonishing because it's not nearly the buzz-generator that many lesser-rated shows seem to be. A new episode airs tonight at 7 on WWL-Channel 4.
Hours before "Idol" made its blockbuster season debut (and ratings for Wednesday's second installment of on-the-road auditions were nearly as stunning), members of the TCA boarded buses for the long ride to the Los Angeles exurb of Valencia to tour the "NCIS" set and interview its stalwart, if seldom-celebrated, cast, presided over with a paternal eye by Mark Harmon, who plays Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
In addition to the freeform Q&A, the critics were treated to demonstrations by real NCIS agents in on-the-job techniques, including evidence-collection, surveillance gizmos and polygraph demonstration.
(And, yes, I was among the critics who strapped in to take the lie-detector test. Or was I?)
But the day's true forensics task was trying to define "NCIS's" appeal even in the face of the mighty wind known as "American Idol."
Coincidentally enough, Pauley Perrette, who plays perky, inky lab rat Abby Sciuto on the series, said she counts "Idol" judge Randy Jackson as a good friend.
She's a musician, too, and they'd talked about collaborating on a recording project before "Idol" blasted off, so Perrette was circumspect when discussing the competition, but proud of the fact that "NCIS" holds its own against Fox's Caterwaul of Sound.
"Haven't seen it in years," she said. "It's crazy math. They get the rating that they do . . . and our audience has stayed with us. What changes is somebody else's ratings. Ours stay right in the middle."
A strong possibility is that the mature "NCIS" audience core hasn't the faintest interest in Fox's singing pop tarts.
"I have a lot of young fans, which is to be expected, but the greatest thing is everywhere I go, people are like, 'My grandmother loves you,' " said Perrette, who was born in Metairie. "I've been trying to figure out why that is, but they do. Grandmothers and grandfathers, for some reason, love Abby so much. I think it may be that they think they know her and it gives them this connection to this generation. They know Abby, they get her, they like her.
"I get letters from grandparents all the time saying, "You remind me of my granddaughter.' I think maybe if they do have a granddaughter or grandson who gets a tattoo or whatever, now instead of running screaming down the hallway they can be like, 'Oh, Abby.'
"I think that the character Abby, being this popular and around so long, has changed people's perception about that type of person. Maybe now, instead of thinking they're a drug addict or they're a thief, when they see somebody like this in public they think, 'They must be a genius.' "
David McCallum, who plays equally eccentric Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, is in the age demographic least likely to ditch "NCIS" for "American Idol."
And, sure enough, he said he's seen just one episode of "Idol" and didn't like it.
"I prefer Mozart, actually," said McCallum, whose parents were classical musicians. "What is marvelous about 'American Idol' is that there are certain singers who end up winning or being second or third who are wonderful and who are getting careers, but that process that leads up to it. . . .
"I think 'American Idol' is so totally different (from 'NCIS'). One of the things about 'NCIS' is it's the ultimate answer to reality TV. This is television in the good, old-fashioned sense -- a good cast with a good script with a good producer producing entertaining episodes.
"Corn, extremely well served up, is the best form of entertainment you can give people. It's escapism, there's vicarious pleasure, there's a Sherlock Holmes element."
Like many of his cast-mates, McCallum, who came to fame as Illya Kuryakin in the mid-1960s TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," credited the cast and crew's esprit de corps for some of the show's success.
"The group, as my wife once described it, is a wonderful dysfunctional family," he said. " 'You all adore one another and you are all adorable.' The crew and cast so remind me of working on 'U.N.C.L.E' It was the same camaraderie, the same feeling back 40 years ago.
"I am thrilled by what this show has done, and surprised. When we were 15th, I said, 'C'mon. We can make it to No. 1,' and we did. Now we can go back to where I want to be, which is 11, which is just under the radar, and stay there until the show has run its course."
For the TV season pre-"Idol," the show actually occupied Nielsen's No. 16 spot.
By way of comparison, "Heroes," perhaps the most chattered-about new show of the TV season, ranked No. 20.
Lower on the list were such critical favorites as "Ugly Betty" (No. 26), "Jericho" (35), "My Name is Earl" (45), "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (52) and "Gilmore Girls" (129).
"NCIS" has more than twice the average audience of Fox's "The O.C." and the CW's "Veronica Mars" combined.
And yet, life on the "NCIS" set the week the show finished No. 1 "wasn't that different," said Sean Murray, who plays Special Agent Timothy "Probie" McGee. "We kind of do our thing here. It's weird. We kind of have our own little world here.
"We kind of forget that other people are watching this show."
Michael Weatherly, who plays Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo on the series, has several theories on the show's appeal, some whimsical but all plausible. (At least as plausible as anything I can come up with.)
Same as Mrs. McCallum's, one is that the "NCIS" characters form a virtual family.
"You've got the dad," said Weatherly, gesturing toward Harmon, who was standing nearby at the center of a scrum of reporters. "I'm the troublemaking son. Then you've got the youngest son (he pointed toward Murray), who's kind of babied, but everybody loves him. You've got the wily sister (Cote de Pablo, who plays Ziva David). Then you've got the girl next door down in the lab who's a little kooky (Perrette's Abby). And you've got the creepy uncle in the basement with the dead bodies."
That would be McCallum's Mallard.
"It's a little 'Munsters'-like," continued Weatherly. "I also think there's a 'Winnie the Pooh' correlation. If he's Pooh (Harmon again) and Abby is Tigger, I think Eeyore is Probie. I think McCallum is Owl. I'm Rabbit, I think. I feel very rabbit-like. And I think Kanga and Roo are Cote de Pablo and Lauren Holly (who plays NCIS Director Jennifer Shepard).
"That's my Hundred Acre Wood theory. There's a 'Gilligan's Island' one, too."
Harmon incorporates the family feel into his own theory about the success of "NCIS."
"This is a different group here," said Harmon. "There's not a cast member here that doesn't know it's important to get up and introduce themselves to a day player and say, 'Hi, I'm Michael Weatherly, you're welcome here and if you need anything, let me know.'
"It's different here because people make the effort to make it different."
Sometimes success is "not always what's deserved or how hard you work," he continued. "It's really about some other thing. You really have to start with this collection of people.
"This is a pretty great job and it's one we all appreciate."
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TV columnist Dave Walker can be reached at dwalker@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3429.