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October 25, 2005

Behind a Quiet Little Hit, a Reliable Hit Maker

By BILL CARTER Copyright © 2005 The New York Times Company

The most-watched show on Tuesday night is one that few in television would ever think of when compiling a list of the most popular shows on television. CBS's three-year-old crime drama "NCIS" has emerged as the hit nobody really knows about.

"It's the quiet little hit that is succeeding totally under the radar," said Leslie Moonves, the CBS chief executive. Not under CBS's radar, of course. The network is thrilled with the performance of "NCIS."

Indeed, for the last two weeks in a row, the series has posted its best ratings ever. It wins its time period, 8 p.m. Tuesday, every week - and not just among total viewers, where it amassed an impressive 17.7 million people last week. "NCIS" has steadily built its audience among viewers ages 18 to 49, one of the chief benchmarks of network success.

In that category, "NCIS" has also been scoring its best numbers ever, and this season it ranks second only to CBS's far more celebrated hit, "Survivor," among shows that lead off nights for networks.

And as Mr. Moonves pointed out, "NCIS" has another invaluable quality: it has proved itself to be the one show on television seemingly impervious to the wave of ratings numbers that crashes on Tuesday night in the winter when the Fox network adds "American Idol." "We never have to worry like the other networks do when 'Idol' comes in for Fox," Mr. Moonves said.

That this happened with a show so unheralded is remarkable and unexpected, though perhaps it shouldn't be. "NCIS," after all, is the latest series from one of television's most reliable hit makers, the writer-producer Donald P. Bellisario. Though his name has never become a household word along with some of television's other multihit program creators, like Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley, Mr. Bellisario's record is striking for the consistency of its success.

Mr. Bellisario has had a successful prime-time show on network television steadily for the last 25 years. First it was "Magnum P.I." on CBS; then "Quantum Leap" on NBC; "JAG" on CBS; and now "NCIS." That doesn't even count some other shows Mr. Bellisario created, like "Airwolf" in 1984 and "Tales of the Gold Monkey" in 1982.

"He doesn't win a lot of awards," Mr. Moonves said of Mr. Bellisario. "All he does is put on big commercial hits."

In some ways "NCIS" is Mr. Bellisario's greatest triumph, because it has so defied all expectations - even those of CBS. Mr. Bellisario said in a telephone interview that he had to battle his own network to steer his new show away from being stigmatized as a spinoff of "JAG."

The knock on "JAG" was always that it was a show almost exclusively for older viewers, those with a fondness for military yarns. And "NCIS" did start as a spinoff episode of "JAG." Mr. Bellisario said CBS so wanted to recreate what it had with "JAG" that the network insisted, against his strenuous objections, in calling the new series "Navy NCIS" in its first year. (The initials stand for Naval Criminal Investigation Service.)

"I fought that idea all the way," Mr. Bellisario said. "I did not want the show to be just a stopgap for CBS. I foresaw CBS saying this is good for now and always looking for something better."

So he rejected CBS's initial promotional efforts, which he felt made the show look like another military based drama - or else too much like CBS's big hit, "CSI." Mr. Bellisario wanted to include real humor as well as some murky back stories for his characters.

And he wanted to play down the military angle. He pointed out that he chose the naval branch of criminal investigations because it did not report directly to naval superiors and used civilian investigative agents. The stories simply have to involve military personnel.

Most of all, Mr. Bellisario was convinced he could start to pull in younger viewers, and he tailored his cast for that purpose. Beyond the lead actor, Mark Harmon, and the comeback to television of David McCallum, the cast of "NCIS" is largely made up of young actors. One, Pauley Perrette, even plays television's only regular goth personality.

Mr. Moonves said Mr. Bellisario was constantly pressing the network to emphasize his young, good-looking cast in promotions.

In many ways "NCIS" follows what has become a hugely successful formula for CBS. It's a crime show with a prominent male star in the lead, surrounded by a cast of quirky but loyal subordinates. The difference is Mr. Bellisario, who not only writes many of the episodes but also adds unusual stylistic touches.

He decided, for example, to shoot the show with multiple cameras, so that the actors in a scene never know when they are out of the shot. He uses overlapping dialogue whenever he can. Recently he added flashback sequences shot in grainy 16-millimeter black and white.

Then there was the stunning elimination last spring of a chief character: Kate, a young agent on the team. Mr. Bellisario said the actress, Sasha Alexander, came to him last year and said the pace was wearing her out; she wanted to leave the series.

Mr. Bellisario said: "I told her, 'All right, then I'm going to kill you.' She was taken aback."

He managed to incorporate the killing into an ongoing storyline about a terrorist named Ari who is the nemesis of the Mark Harmon character, Gibbs.

This season Mr. Bellisario added Lauren Holly to the cast as a new supervisor who happens to have had a steamy romantic past with Gibbs. He also wanted to bring in an exotic female character, so he introduced an Israeli agent with the arresting name of Ziva David, and hired an attractive young Chilean actress named Cote de Pablo to play her. "Les took one look at her and said, Wow!," Mr. Bellisario said.

The constant invention is part of a strategy to turn "NCIS" into an even bigger hit. And it all springs from the mind of the indefatigable Mr. Bellisario, who just recently celebrated his 70th birthday. A former Marine staff sergeant, who spent years as a journalist and then in advertising, Mr. Bellisario built his career in television mainly on sheer pluck.

He came to Hollywood in the 1970's determined to write feature films. But he told his agent at the time that he had only six weeks worth of cash. The agent suggested he try television. Mr. Bellisario hasn't stopped working since.