CBS & CBS Studios Chiefs On Building ‘NCIS’ Universe: Pending Renewals, Possible Crossovers & Bringing Back Tiva

The NCIS franchise will be airing its 1,000th episode on April 15, and CBS Studios President David Stapf has been involved in every single one of them. Because he was head of CBS current programming at the time, he even participated in the development of the mothership series from Day 1 because it originated as two back-door pilot episodes of an existing show, JAG, that aired in April 2003. He was in on all casting sessions and still remembers Pauley Perrette’s audition that won her the role of Abby in the room.

Scheduled against then-Fox juggernaut American Idol, NCIS, about a little known branch of the U.S. military, got off to an inauspicious start, finishing its first season ranked #26. By Season 7, it was the most watched TV drama, holding its own against Idol, and became the most watched program overall three seasons later while also ruling syndication.

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CBS’ Entertainment President Amy Reisenbach has been with the show since Season 8 when she was assigned as the day-to-day current executive on the drama and quickly became a fan. At the time NCIS had already spawned one spinoff, NCIS: LA. It was followed by NCIS: New Orleans in 2014; the franchise’s first female-led offshoot NCIS: Hawai’i in 2021; the first international installment, NCIS: Sydney, last year; as well as the upcoming prequel NCIS: Origins for CBS, executive produced and narrated by Mark Harmon and starring Austin Stowell as Leroy Jethro Gibbs in the 1990s; and an Europe-set Tony & Ziva spinoff for Paramount+, starring NCIS alums Michael Weatherly and Cote de Pablo.

The latest pickups make NCIS the largest procedural franchise ever with five current series. They also will help grow the franchise’s global audience, estimated to be more than 300 million viewers in 2023 by producer CBS Studios, which has licensed it in over 200 markets, and the franchise’s staggering current U.S. tally of 4.37 trillion minutes viewed.

In an interview with Deadline, Stapf and Reisenbach, who was promoted to the CBS Entertainment president post in November 2022, discuss expanding the NCIS universe, how the latest additions came about (including why Tony & Ziva ended up on Paramount+) and potential crossovers. They provide an update on the Tony & Ziva spinoff’s title, production start date and possible cast additions, and on the renewal status for NCIS and NCIS: Hawai’i. The duo also address the prospects for Mark Harmon to appear on NCIS or Origins and for a potential Perrette and Scott Bakula return to the franchise, share plans for further NCIS installments, and how big the franchise can get.

DEADLINE: NCIS: Sydney just got picked up yesterday for a second season. What about NCIS and NCIS Hawai’i? Are you already working on their renewals?

REISENBACH: Like we talked about it a couple months ago, NCIS is a cornerstone of our schedule. The actors love doing it, and the writers continue to fire on all cylinders. As far as the future, we’re thrilled to have them on the air and they want to keep doing it, so we’re going to keep doing it.

DEADLINE: So it’s looking good for NCIS and Hawai’i to come back next season?

REISENBACH: It’s still only March, and we haven’t made all of our deals and decision-making so it’s a little early to officially confirm anything.

DEADLINE: Sydney was used as strike contingency last fall. What was the impetus to bring it back to CBS with the strike over? Are you going to use it as a summer series?

REISENBACH: I can’t tell you where it’s going to air yet because we haven’t figured that out to be honest. Again, that’s sort of the too soon to tell category. But the show resonated, it was the number one show until we brought back the rest of the schedule. It came on and did really well without much of our launch platform.

We had a great launch campaign for it, if you remember, we did these amazing upside-down promos during football that got a lot of attention. So I think just the fact that it launched with very little original programming surrounding it and did so well, it has earned a spot back on the schedule at some point for sure.

DEADLINE: In expanding the NCIS franchise, you originally took the traditional route, replicating the general formula in a new location with LA and New Orleans. Then in close succession, you ordered Hawai’i and Australia-set Sydney, which have a similar setup, followed by the pickups of prequel Origins and the Tony and Ziva spinoff this year. When did that accelerated expansion master plan start and where are we in it right now?

STAPF: The master plan started a long time ago. We had NCIS. It certainly worked well enough to spawn a spinoff, LA, which also worked really well, that was on for 14 seasons, I think that show doesn’t get the credit it deserves as expanding the franchise but also deepening the love of the franchise for viewers.

We knew and always wanted to expand it, but when you’re dealing with a franchise, you don’t want to oversaturate the market, you don’t want to dilute the value of each individual show. So it really comes down to somebody coming in with an idea for a show that could stand on its own and could be part of the franchise but is wholly unique from any of the others. Hawai’i certainly did that in the way that it was unique, a female lead, set in Hawaii. We were just coming off Hawaii Five-0, a very successful show. People love that setting, it plays well over the globe.

REISENBACH: There is a big military presence too in Hawaii that makes sense.

STAPF: Sydney certainly was not intended for the States. The strike afforded the network the ability to utilize it but that was going to be P+ Australia and Network 10. I would love to say we didn’t get lucky, that it was planned, we knew it was going to be as great as it is. But we got lucky, that show is really well done. It very much has the DNA of what makes NCIS work, humor, family, etc.

In the case of Origins, Mark and Sean Harmon had this idea with [writers] David North and Gina Monreal, and they brought it to us. I was like, oh my gosh, this idea is great. Commissioned a script, the script was even better. So it’s like, okay, can this show exist within the framework of the franchise we have? And we do believe it can, particularly because it’s a prequel. And because NCIS has been on for so long and Mark’s been gone for a while, there’s genuine interest in, how did Gibbs become Gibbs, who was that guy? So again, there was an organic reason to do it vs. us just saying, let’s just throw on another NCIS.

Tony and Ziva, it’s one of the most unrequited love stories for the audience, the audience loved Tony and Ziva. And in the audience’s mind, and in our mind, they left too soon. So, reuniting them with a global audience is the intent on that show. And because it’s going to be on Paramount+, it can exist within the universe without, in our minds, cannibalizing anything else.

REISENBACH: I would also add just two things to that. One, I think that [CBS President and CEO] George Cheeks arriving [in 2020], he really embraced the show and saw the potential and immediately identified that as an area to be looking at when opportunities arise. And I think the [NCIS-LA-Hawai’i] three-way crossover we did, the fact that it was so successful for us. The fans loved it so much and the actors and the writers loved doing it, and it showed that they love the opportunity to see these worlds and these characters collide.

DEADLINE: You mentioned how Origins came about but not the Tony and Ziva spinoff. How did it originate?

STAPF: Michael and Cote have been talking about this show for years and years and years. So they were the ones that cooked up the rough edges of the idea, went to [writer] John McNamara, along with us, saying, we’d love to do this show. And the timing was right.

DEADLINE: Did that happen after the end of Michael’s other CBS show, Bull?

STAPF: They had started talking about it before, somewhere after they had both left NCIS. Put yourself in their shoes. They’re constantly getting hit up by fans as to, oh my god, I miss you. When are you going to be back together, what happened to your child and all that stuff. And so, again, I keep saying it but there was an organic reason for this show to exist, it was almost like a fan demand for it.

Cote de Pablo and Michael Weatherly on ‘NCIS’ (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images)
Cote de Pablo and Michael Weatherly on ‘NCIS’ (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images)

DEADLINE: You mentioned that they may have left too soon. Why did they leave so soon?

STAPF: In the fans’ minds. They would want them on for a 100 years.

REISENBACH: Well, both of them were on the show a long time.

STAPF: A really, really long time.

DEADLINE: Do we have a title for the Tony and Ziva spinoff yet?

STAPF: Not yet.

DEADLINE: Amy, are you jealous that the spinoff didn’t come to CBS?

REISENBACH: Hm, jealous? Yeah, a little bit, I’m not going to lie, sure. I’m a Tiva fan like everyone else. BTW, the phrase Tiva was one of the original couple names that ever existed, I don’t think we get enough credit for that.

But we all work together. We are all one ecosystem, and I have no doubt that Origins and the shows that live on the network will drive viewers over at P+ and likewise their show will send them back our way, and that’s what matters most, that people are watching it and I think, it’s such a treat for the fans no matter wherever it airs.

DEADLINE: Was there even a conversation for the spinoff to air on CBS or was it always supposed to be a Paramount+ show?

STAPF: No, it was always designed to be a streaming show.

DEADLINE: Would the premiere at least air on CBS in the tradition of P+ shows with CBS history such as Star Trek: Discovery or SEAL Team?

STAPF: It’s a good question. We haven’t dealt with it yet. We don’t start shooting until summer so I’ll start annoying Amy with that sometime this summer.

DEADLINE: Is there a possibility for other former NCIS cast members to join Michael Weatherly and Code de Pablo in the new series?

STAPF: In all honesty, as it’s designed now, no, but never say never.

DEADLINE: This is your second internationally-based NCIS spinoff after Sydney, which is interesting since NCIS is a unit of the U.S. military that does not exist abroad. You found two different ways to extend the franchise beyond the U.S. Do you have ideas for more offshoots in other areas of the world and how are you going to pull that off?

STAPF: There could be but we don’t look at the setting or the geographical location determining what the story should be. It’s more about what’s a good story to tell, where would this organically happen? We’re constantly fielding pitches and coming up with ideas of our own. But you don’t want to rush anything, you want to get it right. You certainly don’t want to, like I said before, dilute the shows that are on by having too much on or having any that are on that aren’t of the quality of the rest of them.

DEADLINE: Do you have anything currently in development in the NCIS universe?

STAPF: Nothing that’s close enough to talk about.

DEADLINE: But in the plan, is there a timetable about maybe adding a new series to the universe every couple of years? You’ve announced four in the past three years.

STAPF: If it organically comes about, and there’s a reason for that show to exist, then yes. But we’re not looking at it as a math problem of, we want two every four years…

REISENBACH: It’s not like when they announced Star Wars and they said, there’ll be a new Star Wars movie every year. We don’t have a plan like that.

STAPF: We don’t want a plan like that.

(L-R): Michael Weatherly as Anthony DiNozzo and Brian Dietzen as Jimmy Palmer in “The Stories We Leave Behind”. (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images)
(L-R): Michael Weatherly as Anthony DiNozzo and Brian Dietzen as Jimmy Palmer in “The Stories We Leave Behind”. (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images)

DEADLINE: Amy mentioned the success of the three-way crossover. What are the possibilities, particularly for the Tony and Ziva show, to be part of NCIS crossovers? Can they appear on NCIS? Michael recently did a cameo in the David McCallum tribute episode. Was it tied to his work on the spinoff?

REISENBACH: I can speak to the cameo. That was just Michael wanting to honor David McCallum, and we thought it was important as well to make sure that we tied in iconic characters like that. He just wanted to show up and was game to do it because of his love of the show.

STAPF: And his love for David. it was such a nice moment for the fans too.

DEADLINE: And in terms of potential crossovers?

STAPF: There could be. We’re not there yet, writers room just started on Tony and Ziva.

REISENBACH: With Origins, I don’t see a possibility because it takes place in the past but we’re always looking for opportunities. It was obviously a shortened season, so it was tough to do that [with NCIS and Hawai’i] this year. Otherwise we would have. We’ll keep looking for those opportunities for sure.

DEADLINE: On Origins, Mark Harmon is an executive producer and a narrator. He could appear in flash-forwards. Is this something that’s you’re considering? And is there a possibility for Mark to return to NCIS one day?

REISENBACH: The door for Mark is always open, It’s really up to him. In terms of flash-forwards, I don’t think it’s something we’ve talked about, that doesn’t feel like the DNA of that show to me, at least right now. But you never know, when we’re in Season 10, we’re taking creative risks and having fun. So if that’s something Gina and David wanted to tackle down the road, we’d be open to it.

DEADLINE: You have brought back a few actors from other NCIS shows, LA‘s LL Cool J is now on Hawai’i. Is this something that you’re planning to continue, keeping the universe going? Can we see New Orleans‘ Scott Bakula pop up somewhere; we haven’t seen him in a couple of years.

STAPF: It’s really writer-driven. As Amy said, we’re open to anything and everything. So if any of the writers have a good idea, and it feels organic, and more on story and make sense versus just doing it to do a stunt, sure, we are open to it.

REISENBACH: [LA‘s] Daniela [Ruah] has been directing, she started directing on LA, she’s directing on Hawai’i and NCIS mothership this year as well. I think when you get into this universe and become a part of the family, we’re always happy to have you back in any capacity.

DEADLINE: What about Pauley? Is there a possibility for her either returning to NCIS or you doing a new show around her character Abby the way you treated Tony and Ziva?

STAPF: Not a bad idea. We haven’t talked about it or thought about it. We love Pauley, and she’s always welcome in any of the NCIS franchise, but it hasn’t come to us from the writers and/or from her. I kind of was kidding when I said, it’s not a bad idea but it’s genuinely not a bad idea, she was a beloved character.

Pauley Perrette as Abby on ‘NCIS’. Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS
Pauley Perrette as Abby on ‘NCIS’. Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS

DEADLINE: NCIS was a late bloomer, rising to the top of the rankings later in its run. It seems like it was one of those shows that just stuck around, something that maybe wouldn’t have happened in today’s environment when shows get canceled much faster.

STAPF: Except it was around its second or third season, Armando Nuñez, our head of distribution, called me and said, are you noticing what’s going on with NCIS internationally? I was like, no, that’s your job. And he said, it’s exploding. Every market it was in, it was doing extraordinarily well. It was selling really well, which was always a surprise to me because it’s about a unit of the military that nobody had ever really heard of. And it was a very American military [show] so I figured it’s not going to work over there, but it did.

So it was a bigger hit globally than it was in the U.S., and the U.S. sort of trailed it. It really started to take off — maybe it wasn’t number one — but it climbed in the ratings precipitously. I think in year four or five, it became hey, this show is doing something.

DEADLINE: Over the years, NCIS has dealt with major cast departures, including Mark Harmon, the deaths of showrunner Gary Glasberg and David McCallum, behind-the-scene changes. To what do you attribute the longevity of show which continues to be at the top of the ratings?

REISENBACH: For me, I attribute it to the fact that there’s always been a core feeling that the people who write the show, the people who produce it, the crew and the actors, no matter whether they were there from the beginning or not, they understand the DNA of the show, and they’ve always stayed true to that.

Nobody who’s come in has ever been like, oh, well now I need to fix it. Everyone understood it’s a concept that works, it’s characters that work. And it’s not about those specific characters, but the type of characters and the specificity of the characters and the love that these characters show each other so openly that I think has transcended, no matter who’s running the show, or who’s been on the show at any given time.

STAPF: It’s sort of wish fulfillment TV. You want to know that there are people like this in the world that have your back from a law enforcement agency angle, but it’s also a fun workplace show, and the bond that they have and the sh*t that they give each other and the way that they interact, is comforting.

The show has a ton of heart, humor, always has a good mystery. And I think there’s something comforting to, the bad guys are always identified and put down by the good guys or our guys. And that happens on an episodic basis. I think that the comfort of that has hit the right chord with the audiences for 21 years and will continue on for another 20 years or something. I honestly believe this franchise will never get stale.

REISENBACH: I think being in Season 21 doesn’t lower the degree of difficulty. If anything, it makes it harder. They’ve got 400-plus episodes behind them of quality shows, and the fact that they continue to hold themselves up to such a high standard. As long as they’re shooting for the stars — and all the shows really are — we want to keep doing them.

The NCIS team celebrates their 300th episode. (L-R): Series regulars Brian Dietzen, Rocky Carroll, Mark Harmon, Emily Wickersham, Sean Murray, EP Gary Glasberg, director Andrew Traver, Michael Weatherly, Pauley Perrette, David McCallum. Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS
The NCIS team celebrates their 300th episode. (L-R): Series regulars Brian Dietzen, Rocky Carroll, Mark Harmon, Emily Wickersham, Sean Murray, EP Gary Glasberg, director Andrew Traver, Michael Weatherly, Pauley Perrette, David McCallum. Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS

DEADLINE: Do you have a dream NCIS spinoff? What do you want to see from the universe going forward?

STAPF: Just that it continues to resonate like it is. There’s a stat like 300 million people watched an NCIS last year. Clearly, globally, it’s resonating with viewers. So to continue that, the level of quality on the shows, along with pleasing and garnering the audience that we’re getting. And it’s kind of fun. It’s wild to think that there’s five NCIS series.

REISENBACH: But also unique.

STAPF: Exactly.

DEADLINE: Is five as big as it gets in terms of how many NCISs you can sustain at the same time?

STAPF: Not necessarily. It will come down to the individual shows that we develop. I think if there’s the right timing and fit within the universe, then it doesn’t have to be limited to five.

REISENBACH: We are always asking and challenging not only the writers who are pitching to us but ourselves, why now? Why does it need to exist, what feels fresh?

DEADLINE: So what is the goal? The NCIS franchise is hitting 1,000 episodes. Do you think you can get to 2,000?

STAPF: For me the goal is that in 10 years, there’s other people sitting in our seats that are watching over NCIS.

REISENBACH: Where am I going? I just got this job.

STAPF: OK, in 20 years.

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