‘NCIS’ Hits 1,000 Episodes: How the CBS Procedural Became a Global Franchise

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CBS executives and showrunners break down the journey to the milestone and look to the future

NCIS history
TheWrap/Christopher Smith

Two decades ago, CBS spun off a show about criminal investigations led by a niche unit of the U.S. Navy from the network’s legal drama “JAG.” When it first premiered on the broadcast network, “NCIS” was hardly a hit, landing as only the No. 23 most-watched program of the season against juggernauts like CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” Fox’s “American Idol” and NBC’s “Friends.” 

It took U.S. audiences a few years to come around, but the Mark Harmon-led show performed well with overseas audiences — particularly in Australia, the U.K. and Europe. By Season 7, the show grew into the most-watched broadcast drama on TV. In 2023, with the flagship series in its 20th season and having spawned four spin-off shows, more than 300 million people across the world watched the “NCIS” franchise across all platforms, according to CBS data. 

On Monday night, the franchise will air its 1,000th episode, an inspiring milestone for a collection of CBS crime procedurals in the age of declining linear television. The only other primetime TV franchise to have reached 1,000 episodes are Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” shows.

The feat by “NCIS” is just as impressive considering how its flagship evolved from a small show in its early seasons into a global phenomenon comprising five series and over 46 seasons of highly-rated television — with more still to come. 

“When [“NCIS”] began I figured it’s an America-only show that’s not going to necessarily play well globally. But the show really took off internationally before it did in the States,” CBS Studios president David Stapf, who was the network’s head of current programming at the time of the show’s premiere, told TheWrap. “Now knowing what the show is and what’s in its DNA, I see how naive I was.”

Creative and corporate leaders behind the franchise — consisting of “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “NCIS: Hawai’i” and “NCIS: Sydney,” the franchise’s first international iteration — said its continued success stems from building strong ensemble casts to tackle inventive cases week after week, while striking a delicate creative balance of high-stakes drama, light humor and a sense of family that appeals to a worldwide audience. The showrunners’ success in “recasting well” and maintaining cost-effective productions has also helped ensure the longevity of “NCIS” — and declining linear TV ratings haven’t stopped the franchise from finding a strong audience in streaming.  

“One thing that helps is appealing to a wide range of people, being a show that men can watch and women can watch, and that kids can watch with their parents,” flagship co-showrunner Steven D. Binder told TheWrap. “It also helps that we’re not a serialized show. You can tune in and tune out, although there doesn’t seem to be a lot of tuning out.”

Still, it hasn’t been an easy road to 1,000. The “NCIS” universe has gone through its share of high-profile cast exits, unthinkable losses and bittersweet goodbyes — including the firing of a “NCIS: New Orleans” showrunner over allegations of misconduct. But it has also benefited from a renewed sense of confidence from both CBS and its sibling streamer Paramount+, spawning two upcoming spin-offs — “NCIS: Origins” and a streaming sequel centered around beloved characters Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) and Ziva David (Cote de Pablo). 

Mark Harmon in “NCIS” (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

It’s fitting that the flagship series, recently renewed for Season 22, holds the honor of airing the landmark 1,000th hour. But other than ensuring to make the episode special — as they’ve done in the past for the show’s 100th, 250th and other landmark hours — showrunners Binder and David North admit they haven’t had much time to think about making television history. 

“It’s one of those things that I think I can’t really answer until I’m like 75 looking back on it,” Binder told TheWrap. Added North, “When you’re in the middle of it, you’re just focused on ‘What are we doing next?’ How can we keep the show interesting and fresh? How can we replace this cast member?’” 

While celebrating their own milestone, the showrunners for all five “NCIS” series, along with Stapf and CBS Entertainment president Amy Reisenbach, agreed that they can see other TV franchises replicating this success and longevity — though with shorter episode orders it might take more time. 

Overcoming challenges

The “NCIS” flagship has gone through an almost complete cast shakeup in 21 seasons. Sean Murray and Brian Dietzen are the only remaining cast members to have been involved in some capacity since the first season. 

Binder and North recalled the first cast exit — the death of Sasha Alexander’s Caitlin Todd — as the “scariest” one to get through. But it also served as a blueprint for introducing characters and dynamics to push the series forward after other high-profile departures. The introduction of characters played by Wilmer Valderrama, Diona Reasonover and Katrina Law made up for the losses of fan favorites like Weatherly, de Pablo and Pauley Perrette. 

The biggest challenge came after Harmon stepped away from his role as team leader Leroy Gibbs in Season 19. 

“Mark was the face of this thing, so that was a scary time for all of us,” North said.

The showrunner cited the episode “All Hands” as one where Gary Cole (who plays Gibbs’ successor, NCIS Supervisory Special Agent Alden Parker) stepped up for the team. “It was a big moment for me as a writer and producer where I looked and said ‘Wow, this is going to work.’”

Scott Bakula in NCIS: New Orleans
Scott Bakula in “NCIS: New Orleans” (CBS)

While cast shakeups have happened across the “NCIS” universe, one behind-the-scenes loss stands out: The sudden death of longtime “NCIS” showrunner and “NCIS: New Orleans” creator Gary Glasberg in 2016 at age 50. Veteran CBS producer Brad Kern stepped in as showrunner of the Scott Bakula-led spin-off, but his tenure was short. After two internal misconduct allegations — reportedly involving mistreatment of female colleagues and making racially insensitive statements — Kern was demoted to consulting producer. He was fired in 2018. 

Kern was replaced with franchise veteran Chris Silber and newcomer Jan Nash, who led “NCIS: New Orleans” through the remainder of its seven-season, 155-episode run before it wrapped in 2021. The duo now lead the “Hawai’i” spin-off led by Vanessa Lachey, which is currently in its third season. 

“Life happens around you and sometimes it happens directly to your show,” Silber, who worked alongside Glasberg as a writer and producer on “New Orleans” since Season 1, told TheWrap. “I always saw my job at ‘NOLA’ to be the steward of the show that Gary created and following through on his vision… ‘Hawai’i’ was an opportunity for us to start something from the very beginning.”

“NCIS: Los Angeles,” the franchise’s second longest-running series starring LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell, wrapped up in 2023 after 14 seasons and 323 episodes. “LA” showrunner R. Scott Gemmill, who recently announced a new series at Max, “The Pitt,” with former “ER” collaborator John Wells, told TheWrap he’s certain he’ll return to the “NCIS” universe someday. 

While the Los Angeles and New Orleans versions had long runs, “all shows have to come to their natural conclusion at some point due to a variety of factors,” Reisenbach told TheWrap. “They were able to wrap up their stories, give their characters great send offs… we’re thrilled with the runs they had.”

Global success worthy of expansion

“NCIS” stands as the top-rated broadcast drama of the past five TV seasons (2018-19 through 2022-23), with an average audience of 10 million per episode in delayed viewing. 

The franchise’s global, cross-platform audience of more than 300 million people is 10% higher than the “Law & Order” universe, according to CBS data. Internationally, “NCIS” is licensed in more than 200 markets, and is the No. 1 scripted TV franchise in Australia, Italy, Sweden and the U.K. Along with streaming on Paramount+, 15 seasons of the flagship series are also on Netflix, a likely contributor to its overall visibility on streaming, much like NBCUniversal’s hit “Suits.”

The network also boasted the franchise’s viewership performance in the current season, with year-over-year growth of 10% for Season 21 of “NCIS” and 5% for Season 3 of “NCIS: Hawai’i.” 

Todd Lasance and Olivia Swann in “NCIS: Sydney” (Daniel Asher Smith/Paramount+)   

The numbers show why CBS, and parent company Paramount Global, are determined to grow the franchise. Its latest spin-off, “NCIS: Sydney” — contributing eight of the 1,000 episodes with its first season — was an Australian production originally intended to only hit Paramount+ in the U.S. But the Hollywood double strikes left some holes in CBS’ schedule that led to the Olivia Swann-led show’s massive stateside debut (its premiere gathered 10 million viewers across platforms). The show was renewed for a second season that will stay on CBS. 

“I’m thrilled to be bringing those characters back to life for a bigger and more ambitious second season,” Morgan O’Neill, the “Sydney” showrunner, told TheWrap. 

What’s next for the franchise?

Though audiences seem enamored with the various iterations of “NCIS,” Stapf said he’s meticulous when it comes to developing a new show within its universe. He hears “a lot of ideas” for new shows from writers within the show’s creative ranks and outside pitches. The key to getting a green light is whether a spin-off can stand on its own and present a unique perspective, while still feeling like a good fit for the overall franchise.

That used to mean bringing the DNA of “NCIS” to a different city — or in the case of “Sydney,” to another continent — but the latest CBS spin-off to receive a series order will go back in time. “Origins,” an idea brought to the studio by Harmon and his son Sean, in collaboration with North and Gina Lucita Monreal, will follow the rise of young Leroy Gibbs (played by Austin Stowell) through the NCIS ranks. 

“When David (Stapf) sent over the script for ‘Origins,’ it was undeniable,” Reisenbach said. “The audience will be so thrilled when they see a story that’s never been even alluded to before, once you get into the nitty gritty of it. That goes back to the fact we’re not printing out widgets with these shows.”

The team also recently greenlit the (still) Untitled Tony and Ziva Project, a European production for Paramount+ that will reunite the beloved “NCIS” power couple for a new high-stakes mission. 

Michael Weatherly and Cote de Pablo in “NCIS.” (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

As for the existing shows? While “NCIS” wrapped production on its latest season, “NCIS: Hawai’i” awaits news about a Season 4 renewal, and “Sydney” is gearing up work on Season 2. 

“I remember maybe Season 7 or 8 CBS came with a big cake and said we were the most-watched drama in the world… Then I had my high school reunion shortly after that. I’m standing around talking to people, and I said I was a writer on a show called ‘NCIS’… Like two people recognized it, and the other eight were like ‘What’s that?’ ” Binder recalled. “So as you’re excited. You’re also constantly humbled.”

“NCIS” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS, followed by ‘NCIS: Hawai’i” at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Past episodes of the franchise are available to stream on Paramount+.


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