All eyes on military crimeshow

CBS drama 'NCIS' rules Tuesday night slot

A crimeshow on CBS with military themes starring a fiftysomething actor has become a magnet for the aud that Madison Ave. pays a premium to reach.

Everything changes on Tuesday night in January when Fox’s “American Idol” rejoins the sked, but for now the hottest thing going in the night’s opening hour is CBS drama “NCIS.”

After chugging along with respectable numbers its first season and growing in year two, the Mark Harmon-led drama has taken off this fall, dominating its hour in both total viewers and key demos.

This isn’t to say that “NCIS” is a young-skewing show — half of its aud is 55 or older — but it has become so popular overall that it’s now hitting some key demos. This season, it’s up nearly 20% vs. a year ago in both adults 25-54 and 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

It set new overall audience records with each of its four October episodes, topping the 16-million viewer mark for the first time on Oct. 4, passing 17 million on Oct. 18 and hitting 18 million on Oct. 25 — making it easily Tuesday’s most popular program.

“NCIS” is not really a military show like “JAG,” and it’s not a blood-and-guts skein like “CSI.” Instead, it’s the latest fastball down the middle for Donald Bellisario, the creator of “Magnum, P.I.,” “JAG” and “Quantum Leap.”

Bellisario believes people who have come upon “NCIS” have enjoyed what they found and stuck with it. It just took awhile for the show, which faces the megahit “Idol” during four months of the year (and holds up pretty well), to appear on some people’s radar.

“All I wanted was for people to sample it,” Bellisario says. “It was so frustrating that first year because they (viewers) wouldn’t give it a shot.”

Just because the “NCIS” characters were introduced in an episode of “JAG” and CBS skedded it in the hour where the military law skein resided for nearly a decade, it didn’t mean they’re the same show.

Making it a tougher sell to some viewers was the show’s cumbersome original title, “Navy NCIS.”

“The people who weren’t going to watch ‘JAG’ didn’t watch, and other people thought it was a dyslexic version of ‘CSI,’ ” Bellisario says. “When people tried it, though, they’d say, ‘This isn’t what I thought it was.’ ”

Ratings picked up late in its first season and have been growing ever since. And with “Idol” on the bench, “NCIS” is regularly beating ABC comedies “According to Jim” and “Rodney,” NBC reality show “The Biggest Loser” and Fox’s new crime drama “Bones” among adults 18-49.

Like “JAG,” deemed a “flyover” success because of its appeal in Middle America, “NCIS” derives some of its biggest ratings in markets like Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Dallas. But this season, it’s also on top in New York and L.A.

Show is already a big success overseas, as well, especially in Australia, Germany and France.

The ascent of “NCIS” this season is impressive but not surprising given its standout perf last summer, when it often cracked the weekly list of 10 most-watched programs. Many viewers of Fox’s “Idol” probably caught up with episodes they may have missed when watching the music talent competition.

One of the things that sets “NCIS” apart from other crimeshows is its sense of humor, and wittier dialogue than you’ll find on most standard sitcoms these days. This has proven a particularly good strategy for 8 o’clock, where viewers are accustomed to watching lighter fare than later in the evening.

And if this is the year when “American Idol” finally cools off, look for even more viewers to discover “NCIS” and make a Tuesday evening date with Harmon and the gang.

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