Change likely in the air for ‘CSI’

New timeslots could be in store veteran franchise

Ten years ago this month, CBS reserved a spot on its Friday sked for “CSI.” Expectations were low, but that fall, the forensics crime drama was an instant ratings smash.

The show soon shifted to the more lucrative night of Thursday, and it and a pair of spinoffs have since earned hundreds of millions of dollars for CBS and exec producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

But after punishing timeslot rivals for years, the franchise that largely defined the Eye for a decade has cooled — and some sort of sked shakeup seems inevitable when CBS rolls out its 2010 fall lineup next week.

Longtime Monday leader “CSI: Miami” fell behind ABC’s “Castle” for the first time last month; Wednesday’s once-dominant “CSI: NY” has lost in demos recently to NBC’s own vet, “Law and Order: SVU”; and Thursday’s original-recipe version has sometimes placed third among the under-50 crowd in its tough timeslot.

All three shows remain fairly popular — and on most weeks they win their hours in total viewers — but there’s no guarantee they will all be on the fall sked. And keeping all three in the same timeslot for a sixth straight fall seems even more unlikely.

As currently scheduled, each “CSI” is the beneficiary of some of the Eye’s strongest lead-ins, and CBS may feel the time is right to get more production out of those slots.

Here’s a look at what the net might be thinking:

“CSI: Miami” would appear to be the show most likely to stay put, mainly because it still usually leads its hour in demos. Also, if the net makes comedy moves on Monday, it may not want to entirely rip up a night that’s performing pretty well.

Its 10% year-to-year ratings decline in adults 18-49 (3.7 vs. 4.1) isn’t too bad for a show in its eighth season, but CBS was much stronger in the half-hour leading into “Miami” this season (thanks to the growth of “The Big Bang Theory”), so any falloff is troubling.

But if anything, the vibrant and young-skewing comedy block that now precedes “CSI: Miami” only seems to call attention to the fact that David Caruso’s crime-solving shtick has gotten old.

The sexy backdrop of Miami still looks good in promos, though, and CBS may want to leave well enough alone in the fall (when “CSI: Miami” will air after a weekend of football spots) and see how ABC and NBC fare opposite its drama’s ninth season.

“CSI: NY,” which is wrapping up its sixth season, has always been the lowest-rated of the “CSI” trio, but it has more or less won its Wednesday 10 p.m. timeslot since its premiere.

And as recently as the fall, it looked unstoppable — but then again, that was opposite Jay Leno on NBC and ratings-challenged ABC newcomer “Eastwick.”

Season to date, its 3.1 rating in 18-49 reps a 14% falloff from last year’s 3.6, and it has looked vulnerable this spring opposite “SVU.”

Because the Eye’s 9 p.m. Wednesday drama “Criminal Minds” is at its strongest in the fall (before “American Idol” invades the time period), CBS may opt to rest “NY” in the fall and try something else at 10. This would give the Eye a strong midseason player off the bench.

Another option would be for the net to shift the show to the 10 p.m. hour on Friday or Sunday.

The original “CSI” has seen the franchise’s biggest dropoff this season (down 28%, 3.9 vs. 5.4) even though lead-in “Survivor” remains surprisingly potent.

CBS briefly experimented with flipping the timeslots of “CSI” and “The Mentalist” this spring, but the latter didn’t look that hot in the earlier hour.

Still, it may very well be that the younger, seemingly stronger “Mentalist” is the right way for CBS to go now at 9, and that it’s merely a matter of auds getting used to the change. After all, at nine years together, “Survivor” and “CSI” are among the longest-running hourlong duos in television history, if not the longest running.

Best options for “CSI” would appear to be Thursday at 10, where it could blunt any high-profile new drama NBC skeds there, or Friday at 9, where it could lead into something like “The Good Wife.”

Overall, there’s definitely still a future for the “CSI” trio, but one look at the shows’ ratings trajectories indicates that it’s time for a change. To quote one of the show’s famous lines, “The evidence doesn’t lie.”

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