CSI: The anatomy of an Uber Franchise
The CSI formula seems very simple: film noire with copious violence mixed with high brow techie detective work. Part Quincey, Part X-files, CSI has become an international phenomenon spawning a host of extracurricular projects including two highly successful spin-offs - Csi Miami, and CSI NY. Looking back over the success of CSI, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t a hit from the beginning; none-the-less, the show that came to be the yard stick for police procedurals struggled in the beginning to secure a place on the top ten in its freshman 2000 season. Just two seasons later, CSI landed in the top three most watched for the season with a staggering 26.2 million viewers; a number not so uncommon in short run high-profile reality shows like American Idol, but completely unparalleled for a drama.
Part of the CSI phenomenon has been its social impact. Suddenly millions of viewers found themselves deluged with what they thought were the essentials of crime solving. Few other shows purported to educate viewers more on crime solving than CSI. Surprisingly though, the techniques and procedures shown on CSI are far removed from the real world of crime investigation. In fact, a lot of the technology used on CSI doesn’t even exist! This fact was so prominent in the show that the Saturn Awards, the Sci-Fi world’s equivalent of the People’s Choice awards, nominated CSI as a science fiction show at its 2004 awards ceremony (it lost). Crime fiction purists have used CSI as a punching bag since it was released, pointing out numerous flaws in its portrayal of crime scene investigation. The most prominent is the fact that in CSI, the Crime Scene Investigators actual participate in disseminating the information gathered from the crime scene in solving the crime. In real CSI’s, the team merely captures and catalogues the information which is then given over to detectives.
Regardless of whether CSI serves as a visual text book for crime scene investigation, The dynamic, percussive filming style of CSI, seemed to educate an entire generation of film makers looking to make a stylistic splashdown. CSI’s staccato cutting, skewed frame rates, chiaroscuro lighting, and destabilized hand-held work fuse into a visual styling that has proliferated onto the big screen.
The subject matter cannot be discounted though, CSI is more than just a light show. Edgy plots that push the envelope of what is acceptable for violence and sexuality are the hallmark of the CSI motif, making CSI one of the most watched shows at the FCC offices as well. On many occasions, CBS has been admonished about the shows frequent place at the edge of acceptable broadcasting.
None-the-less, the CSI producers, and CBS, have remained true to the CSI formula. In 2002 the first attempt to replicate the CSI formula was a grand success when CSI: Miami, resurrecting a triumphant David Caruso, debuted to universal praise. While not the gate crasher that its progenitor was, CSI: Miami opened in the top fifteen and has remained in the top ten since its debut. The second attempt, CSI: New York, has yet to break the top twenty but continues to add in excess of fifteen million viewers per season to the CSI coffers.
How long can it last? Will CSI eventual succumb to the implosion of its formula ala ER and settle into an admirable, yet degrading holding pattern? While CSI, and its offspring, don’t seem to be slowing down, one can only remember that timeless aphorism that eventually… all good things will come to an end.
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