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Procedurals don’t intimidate viewers and, yeah, pay great in syndication

Procedural vs. serial: The great debate

Believe it or not, we are in the Golden Age of television.

Never before have TV viewers been graced with a lineup of top-shelf shows such as “CSI,” “Lost,” “Sopranos,” “24,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Deadwood,” “House,” etc. I can list 20 more, easy.

Some are procedurals. Some are serialized. But what’s better for television?

When CBS greenlit “CSI” in August 1999, one of the first questions asked was “Will the show be serialized?” Since “CSI” was my first television show, I leaned on my partners in crime — “CSI” showrunner Carol Mendelsohn and “CSI: Miami” showrunner Ann Donahue — for an answer.

They educated me very quickly about the pros and cons of procedurals vs. serialization, and we went the procedural route. I’d be remiss if the calling of syndication dollars wasn’t part of the equation, but in the end I believe our decision was a sound one.

We simply did not want to handcuff the viewers to their television sets from week to week. We wanted to make great television, earn the viewers’ trust and welcome them back 24 times a year. What works best for “CSI” and many procedurals today are “stand-alone” episodes with serialized character arcs. This lessens the pressure of the viewer to tune in every single week, yet encourages loyal viewing by serializing character beats. This, in my opinion, is the best of both worlds.

And it’s worked for our franchise for seven years now, before TiVo and iTunes came along and changed everything.

Today, we live in an emerging era of multiplatform media and the customization of viewing habits. Fact is, we want more control about what we watch, when we watch and how we watch.

In short, the viewer is more demanding and fickle than ever before. Competition is fierce. In today’s climate, if the viewer misses an episode or two of serialized programming and doesn’t have TiVo or shop at iTunes, you may lose them forever.

This is why the “CSI” franchise repeats so well. CBS gives the viewer topnotch Bruckheimer mini-movies every week, and if you miss one, you’ll be back with the confidence knowing you won’t be too far behind.

Procedurally, this gives tremendous peace of mind to the viewer. We’d rather have you watch 20 or 24 rather than miss two shows in a row and tune out forever.

This is the reality of TV viewing today. Tomorrow, Apple may come out with a video iPod with a pre-installed TiVo that allows you to wirelessly tape procedurals and serialized shows on the go and you’ll never miss any episode ever again.

The only difference is you’ll have to pay. It won’t be long until we go from the “golden age of television” to the “platinum age of cellivision” — watching shows on your cell phone.

Stay tuned.

Anthony E. Zuiker is the creator of “CSI.”

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