'CSI' creator focuses on character-driven shows

Anthony Zuiker’s Dare to Pass shingle is in full pilot-season battle mode, fielding three dramas for CBS and one for CW.

Zuiker, creator and exec producer of the Eye’s “CSI” franchise, has no illusions about how hard it’s going to be to land a new drama on CBS next fall given how well the network is doing with this season’s frosh shows. CW is also in pretty good shape, with fall newbies “Nikita” and “Hellcats” looking on track for soph renewals.

“There are probably not going to be a lot of slots open, but we’re working on great characters and we’ll see if we can get lucky,” Zuiker said.

Zuiker’s TV development is flowing through Dare to Pass’ pact with CBS Television Studios. It’s the company’s second go-round with pilot development.

This time last year, Matt Weinberg had just joined the company as production prexy. This year, the two “have worked out a pretty great rhythm on the development process,” Zuiker said.

Beyond the four traditional dramas in the works, Zuiker continues to break the TV-Internet mold with his creepy villain Sqweegel, born in the “Level 26″ interactive novel series that Zuiker pens for publisher Dutton.

The Sqweegel character appeared in the Oct. 14 episode of “CSI,” just as the second installment of the series, “Level 26: Dark Prophecy,” debuted.

The Internet-based components of “Prophecy” promoted his appearance in the “CSI” seg, which led to a double-digit gain in younger demos for that episode.

Sqweegel is likely to make a return visit in the “CSI” finale. Zuiker is also developing a horror feature based on Sqweegel and a crime drama for cable based on the “Level 26″ series.

“Now that we’ve begun to build the (‘Level 26′) brand, we’re looking at other outlets for it,” Zuiker said. “It’s been exciting to see that we can really spin off characters to have life in other media.”

On the pilot front, Zuiker emphasizes that all four projects, now in the script stage, are heavily rooted in character drama built on sturdy procedural foundations. Zuiker learned an important lesson a few years ago when he fielded a pilot, “The Man,” for CBS that did not go the distance. “I put concept over character,” he said.

Not long after “Man” was rejected, Zuiker had a chance meeting with the prolific showrunner Stephen J. Cannell at an awards fete. After telling Cannell of his disappointment with “Man,” Zuiker recalled, the elder advised the younger: “Just remember, always put character over concept.”

Dare to Pass’ “Detail” for CBS is loosely inspired by real-life private security expert Kim-Maree Penn, co-founder of L.A.-based Signal 8 Security. Series will have classic procedural elements a la “the high-risk client of the week,” Zuiker said, but it will also dive deep into Penn’s character. Producer David Kline brought the project to the company.

Sarah Thorp (“The Bounty Hunter”) has penned the script and will exec produce with Zuiker. Weinberg is a co-exec producer on all Dare to Pass projects.

“Desperado” is an attempt at depicting “cowboy justice” as dispensed by an earnest lawman in a small town outside San Antonio. The inspiration came to Zuiker while he was listening to the Eagles’ song of the same name on his daily five-mile, early-ayem walk. Kyle Ward (“Kane and Lynch”) has penned the script and will co-exec produce.

“We want to really give it that Texas flavor,” Zuiker said. “We want it to be a kick-ass, have-fun show that also looks at how this small town’s world is converging with (big city) San Antonio.”

Treadstone” is based on the secretive agency of spies that has appeared in several Robert Ludlum novels, including the Jason Bourne series. John Glenn (“Eagle Eye”) is writing and exec producing with Zuiker, Ben Smith and Jeffrey Weiner of Captive Entertainment.

Zuiker had been looking to do a spy project for some time but hadn’t found the right framework until the Ludlum concept pointed in the direction of “citizen spies” who hold down everyday jobs and blend in with their communities. The sensational bust last June of ten alleged Russian spies who were living nondescript lives in the U.S. added heat to the project at CBS.

For CW, “Spirit” hails from veteran fantasy drama scribe Jesse Alexander (“Heroes,” “Lost”), who brought the project to Zuiker. It revolves around three young women at a startup company; Zuiker describes the concept as ” ‘CSI’ meets ‘Paranormal Activity’ ” with a dash of “Charmed.” Alexander exec produces with Zuiker.

Zuiker is repped by CAA, Brillstein Entertainment Partners and Morris Yorn.

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