It’s a sad day for CSI? fans, like me.
After 15 years of toxicology reports and DNA evidence, the award-winning show that kept George Eads employed has officially been canceled. It was bad enough that CSI: Miami and CSI: NY were axed after nine and 10 seasons, respectively. Now the show that started it all is over. The only future plan is a rumored TV movie next season, just to wrap up any loose ends. However, the network has not yet confirmed this to be true.
How did this happen? Isn’t CSI one of those shows that critics, bloggers and TV writers always called a “ratings juggernaut“? Maybe for a while, but that is no longer the case. I blame the rise in real-life forensic shows like Cold Case Files, Dateline and 20/20. But the real culprit is the big daddy of them all, the channel that 73.9 percent of American households have and over 100 million watch: Investigation Discovery.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the ID channel and am a confessed “ID addict” with my own Joe Kenda mug. I truly enjoy how they have compartmentalized murder. If you like watching women who kill their husbands with a specific weapon, then Wives With Knives is for you. Unexpected murderers your thing? Unusual Suspects. Rich people killing other rich people sound interesting? Then check out Behind Mansion Walls. Their programming of real-life murders and the incredible specificity of which people the murderers turn out to be (Fear Thy Neighbor; Blood Relatives… figure those out) is nothing short of genius.
Real-life murder inspires our primary motivation in life, which is fear. It’s real and it can actually happen to you. Whereas what happens on CSI is fictional, and we know that. It’s no longer as exciting when we know the case will be solved at the end of every episode. Especially when we’ve already figured out who the killer is and we’re just waiting for Catherine Willows to catch up. That’s the nature of the procedural drama. It has a predictable format, each episode is a stand-alone making it easy to watch and the viewer does not have to have any prior knowledge to enjoy it.
The larger issue, and why CSI is now bowing to its reality-based predecessor, is that dramatized murder doesn’t tickle the fear part of our brains the way real-life murder does. Murder shows are the opposite of romance shows. Real-life romance is boring and rarely turns out the way we’d hoped, which is why scripted romance is so much more compelling. It taps into every fantasy. Whereas real-life murders, like the stories on Dateline, tap into a darker fantasy… the bad kind… the kind of horror fantasies that we all dread.
It’s no coincidence that CSI’s ratings took two hits; one in 2009 when William Petersen left, and another in 2011 when Laurence Fishburne decided not to sign on for another season. Those dates coincide with something larger than the two actors leaving the series; those dates correlate to the rise of the Investigation Discovery brand (DCI).The channel launched in 2008 with the sole intention of going after the CSI audience.
In 2009 when DCI brought in Henry Schleiff as General Manger of Investigation Discovery, he said, “If someone tunes to CBS every week to watch CSI, they’re keeping a scheduled appointment. It occurs only once a week,” he says. “If that same person tunes into ID at any time, she’ll see an original show that likely appeals to her.”
Schleiff recognized the popularity of CSI, brilliantly giving its largely female audience the “informative murder porn” it craved 24 hours a day, as opposed to the once a week CSI provided.
Historically, however, the ID Channel was merely stealing its audience back from CSI. The Discovery Channel’s show The New Detectives was, in fact, the inspiration for CSI in the first place. And this isn’t speculation, it’s a fact divulged by CSI creator Anthony Zuiker in his book Mr. CSI: How a Vegas Dreamer Made a Killing in Hollywood, One Body at a Time. Zuiker admits that he was about to go play basketball when his wife insisted he stay and watch The New Detectives on the Discovery Channel. “I decided to stay, and that changed everything,” he says.
Further, CSI didn’t stand a chance when reality TV executives, who traffic in human misery, came across the Chapman survey of American fears that told them we are really “effin scared of true crime.” So much so that we are compelled to learn all there was to know (through TV programming) in order to avoid it happening to us. Never mind the fact that actual crime in America was down.
So, there you have it. My version of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” except now we have to endure the worst murder of all, the killing of our favorite TV show CSI.
It is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye and R.I.P CSI (2000-2015).