‘NCIS:’ The Secret to the Show’s Popularity and Success

Why is the CBS procedural the most-watched show on television? What makes NCIS so popular?

NCIS – defying all television norms as its rankings increase over the years – has aged like a fine wine, more pleasing to the palate with each passing season. Taking in more viewers each year, NCIS has become the most-watched procedural on network television. When Pauley Perrette bid farewell to the show, 14.8 million viewers tuned in to watch her departure.

NCIS
‘NCIS’ Gibbs and Abby | Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

With discussions circling on forums regarding the characters’ personal histories, emotional baggage, and work dynamics to theories discussing when and how the series finale will come to be, the show has developed quite the dedicated and impassioned fanbase. Such fandom is often more common across cult and niche audiences, which works to set NCIS apart from several of its crime-oriented primetime contemporaries.

Fandom grows though; it does not simply come to be. A show must do something right to develop such a loyal fanbase. A show must hit the mark to improve its ranking with each passing year, so why is NCIS more successful than other shows of its kind?

From Blue Bloods and CSI to Law and Order, many popular television shows rely on pseudo-scientists discovering unrealistic connections, tough investigators stopping the bad guys, and characters picking on each other. So, when you ask what the secret is to NCIS’s success, you’re asking what sets it apart. And, as for the aforementioned qualities, these traits keep NCIS in line with the other shows. So, let’s discuss why it supersedes the masses.

‘NCIS’ has always written directly to its target audience

If you look at viewership demographics, you will discover that NCIS is favorited by Republicans and Independents, and much less popular amongst Democrats. This should come as no surprise as the show’s writing clearly leans in the conservative direction.

Gibbs is the conservative ideal concerning a masculine lead: he shows little emotion, is committed to his job, and is strong in the face of adversity. While liberal audiences often lean towards more emotionally vulnerable characters (whether male or female), Gibbs puts out the classic hard exterior vibe. However, this isn’t to say his character is poorly developed or emotionally subpar, as he experiences the spectrum of “feelings;” it is his merely his response to various events that seem glued to a conservative emblem.

Not to mention, DiNozzo (when he was still on the series) was known to make quite the sexist joke. NCIS writes to this audience and doesn’t try to adapt the show to suit all viewers.

NCIS retains the audience it has developed and builds followers based on continued success. Word of mouth likely plays a vital factor as well, as those who have been watching for years still argue – despite the revolving door concerning its cast – that the show still excels.

‘NCIS’ doesn’t squeeze its overarching narratives into the end of each episode

Most episodic television shows struggle with one major facet: balancing the overarching characterizations and narrative arcs with that week’s story, or criminal when it comes to crime dramas. How do you incorporate a character’s childhood trauma and catch the killer in the same episode? Many shows approach this by “getting around to the bigger stories” at the end, but NCIS smoothly weaves its grander subplots throughout each episode.

Many, even the largely successful, episodic television shows suffer from a lack of character development. Time is limited when you have to explore the depths of someone’s persona and explain how the team solved the case in 40 something minutes (taking commercials into account).

Separating themselves from the masses, the writers at NCIS seem to have perfectly balanced the need to retain the show’s episodic nature with the need to delve further into the various characters’ emotional traumas, personal relationships, and life histories. Whether through flashbacks, brief verbal references, or dreams, fans come to discover who these characters are beyond agents.

Though starting as rather two-dimensional characters with one or two identifying qualities, the writers explore the basis of these identifying qualities in tidbits, which further characterizes the cast and transforms them into more realistic people. Fans are still learning about all of Gibbs’ various exes!

And, aside from the attention to its target audience and finessed characterizations, fans can’t get enough of the overall energy running the workplace – one that is inclusive and light in the face of horrific incidents.