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Inside the biggest show nobody on the Internet watches
CBS drama NCIS is a ratings juggernaut. Why doesn’t the Web care about it?
The most-watched television drama worldwide isn’t a hip new Fox show or an irresistible BBC classic. It’s NCIS, the long-running CBS procedural that the Internet loves to forget, but one that 57 million viewers around the world manage to remember just fine. The show, which premiered its 12th season last night, illustrates a fascinating phenomenon: the huge divide between the Internet and the rest of the world when it comes to entertainment.
How can a show get this many viewers with almost no Internet presence? It seems to run counterintuitive to the idea that tech determines the pulse of popular culture. The NCIS website is crude and clunky, the show’s Twitter is an anemic promotions vehicle, and the Internet doesn’t exactly come alive with fans livetweeting NCIS on Tuesday nights. The Internet isn’t interested in it for all the reasons that it appeals to vast numbers of viewers, illustrating that what the Internet wants from television is not necessarily what the Nielsen viewer wants.
Even as overall television viewership is plummeting, NCIS is holding strong, and the program is barely a part of the cultural consciousness; even though shows that stopped airing a decade ago are a vital part of Internet culture. Despite the fact that last night marked a season premiere, usually a big event for a television show, the Internet was almost completely silent—nary even a peep on Twitter and scarcely a blip on the Facebook radar, although the show does have something of a presence on Tumblr.
Delving into the biggest television show that the Internet never watches, overall, NCIS comes in at number-one in scripted dramas, and it’s in the top five overall, ranking only behind Monday Night Football and The Big Bang Theory. NCIS has also dominated the ratings for five years, and it packed a punch even before then. Moreover, CBS is the highest-rated network in the U.S., and it’s also number one for 18-49ers, suggesting that the network isn’t just for old people. NCIS is a billion-dollar franchise with two spin-offs, hardly small potatoes, even if you’re not watching.
There are three main reasons why NCIS is so popular with viewers, yet so invisible on the Internet.
1) It’s inoffensive
This is a show designed with the values of Middle America in mind. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Amy Chozick notes, “NCIS is proof that even if the economics of the business are in upheaval, large swathes of the audience still want traditional storytelling, righteous heroes, and reality that’s not offensively gritty.”
The episodes contain light humor without getting too risqué, gory, or abstract. The mysteries wrap up neatly, the show avoids excessive politics, and the focus is largely on the characters, who don’t undergo radical shifts from episode to episode. No one has a dark, tragic past or behaves in a conflicted way. NCIS goes down as easily as white rice in chicken broth, which is exactly why so many viewers love it.
It’s also why the Internet couldn’t care less, because the Internet loves controversy, or at least something overtly conservative to attack. There’s nothing in NCIS for Twitter or the A.V. Club comment boards to seek their teeth into (though there’s a fair amount of fanfic at AO3). Discussions about television typically revolve around points of argument, not accord, and in NCIS, there’s not really much to debate, pick apart, or explore. The show is exactly what’s advertised on the tin, no more, no less.
2) Procedurals are boring
The procedural drama was one of the greatest innovations in entertainment: create a simple, encapsulated episode that allows viewers to tune in once and enjoy themselves on a casual evening or rabidly follow a show and watch it each week (NCIS viewers are highly likely to actually sit down for a viewing instead of DVRing). You don’t need to know anything about the characters or an ongoing story to get it: dead body, good guys solving it, bad guy caught at the end.
While the procedural is wildly popular, there’s nothing there for the Internet to engage with, because what the Internet thrives on are either complicated character studies or shows with ongoing mysteries. See Lost, for example, which forced viewers to turn in live to find out what happened next—and to avoid spoilers. Or Hannibal, a painstakingly-constructed character study that builds over time.
With no unfolding suspense and buildup, there’s no online speculation, and no community that naturally builds up around the show. The Internet doesn’t care about what happens on NCIS even if many individual fans are online—because they know that the community interested in talking about the drama is relatively small.
3) No attempt at online fan engagement
If you want to make the Internet love you, you have to come to the Internet. The stars of Sleepy Hollow are all over Twitter and at cons, representing the show and meeting ardent fans. Hannibal’s food stylist has a blog. Mindy Kaling is on Instagram. Lena Dunham writes for The New Yorker, a magazine with an almost unexpected digital success. Shows like Lost create a rich online mythology to draw in viewers, right down to a website for Oceanic World Air.
In that landscape, fans have come to expect this level of engagement. Rather than just relying on promotionals, they want interactive content to keep them connected to shows between episodes (and between seasons). More than that, though, they want to rub shoulders with stars—and the tech staff like costumers and stylists who make shows possible, because they delight in behind the scenes scoop. While star power has always been a big draw, the Internet has made the immediacy of the draw even more urgent, because now, fans expect their idols to be a click away, rather than available only at special events, curbed by handlers and behind a velvet rope.
Yet, NCIS has largely shown no interest in engagement with fans online, with limited attempts at outreach. On the promotional side, the show doesn’t need to invest heavily in a social media presence, nor does it need to entice actors to connect with fans—NCIS is clearly doing just fine on its own. But this does explain why the show has such a low Internet presence—because it hasn’t given the Internet a reason to care.
Pop culture conversations online are heavily moderated by young, liberal voices, who don’t speak for the majority of pop culture consumers. NCIS makes that gap painfully clear by being a runaway ratings hit while drawing scarcely any attention. If the Internet isn’t paying attention, does it matter? Ask CBS.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.