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Tube Thursday: Why "CSI" doesn't air on ABC

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Tube Thursday: Why "CSI" doesn't air on ABC

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Given that CSI kicks off its 11th season on CBS tonight and given that Michael Eisner's new book, "Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed," was released to stores earlier this month, it's almost inevitable that some entertainment reporter out there is going to connect the dots. Use tonight's premiere (which features an appearance by tween heartthrob Justin Bieber ) as an excuse to trot out that tired old saw. You know, how Eisner supposedly said "No" to "CSI" ? Which is how The Walt Disney Company missed out on cashing in on what is allegedly the most lucrative TV property in history.

The only problem with this story is that it isn't entirely true. Oh, sure. Michael did play a part in Mickey passing on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." But as it happens, there were a number of other people who worked for the Mouse at this same time who also had a hand in this huge missed opportunity.

So how did this all go down?  As James B. Stewart revealed in his terrific 2005 tome, "DisneyWar," the Summer of 1999 wasn't a particularly happy time for those who worked in television at Disney. You see, Mickey had just merged Walt Disney Television Studio with ABC Entertainment. And to be honest, the executives who had previously been in charge of these business units (i.e. Lloyd Braun, formerly the Chairman of Walt Disney Television Studio, and Stuart Bloomberg, formerly the Chairman of ABC Entertainment) were now jockeying for power to see who might emerge as top dog of the newly formed ABC Entertainment Television Group.

Copyright 2006  Simon & Shuster
All rights reserved

So ...

... A few weeks after the merger of ABC and (WDTS), Steve McPherson, Braun's former deputy, now head of Touchstone (Television), set up a meeting with (Jamie) Tarses  (the president of ABC Television) and executives in ABC's drama department to pitch a new crime drama that producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with Joe Roth's encouragement, had developed for Touchstone. The idea was a fresh spin on the tried-and-true police drama: a series about a forensic team in Las Vegas that gathers evidence for police forces and prosecutors ... called "CSI: Crime Scene Investigators."

Now you have to understand that Bruckheimer was (and is) Walt Disney Studio's most successful producer. More to the point, that "CSI" had the backing of Roth, Braun and McPherson. Which should have made this show a shoo-in for ABC's Fall 2000 line-up. But then inexplicably Tarses and the head of Drama at the Alphabet Network passed on this program.

So what went wrong? There are two schools of thought here. One is that Anthony Zuiker, the longtime Las Vegas resident who created "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," just came on too strong during his pitch to Tarses & the network's Head of Drama. That Jamie et al were put off by Anthony's hyper-kinetic behavior in that meeting.

"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"
creator Anthony Zuiker

The other school of thought is that Bloomberg told Tarses to pass on "CSI" so that he could then send a message to Braun. Make him realize that they wouldn't be bowing to corporate pressure. That - as the Heads of ABC Entertainment - Stuart & Jamie would be deciding which shows should air on the Alphabet Network. Not Lloyd.

Contrast this with what happened when Bruckheimer & Zuiker took "CSI" to CBS. Executives there were so enthusiastic about Anthony's pitch that - even though CBS had already closed its development slate for the 2000 - 2001 television season - they still ordered up a pilot for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Mind you, The Walt Disney Company could have still been the production company behind CSI. Which would have eventually translated into huge profits for the Mouse once this crime drama went into syndication. The only problem is - given that TV dramas cost so much to produce - they rarely if ever turn a profit during their initial network runs.                                                                                                           

Copyright CBS Entertainment. All rights reserved

And since Bloomberg, Tarses and their team at the ABC Television Entertainment Group didn't think enough of  "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to order that pilot be made for this proposed crime drama, Disney executives were having trouble wrapping their heads around the idea  that they were now expected to go into the hole (production costs-wise) to help launch this same show on CBS.

In a Fall 1999 meeting with Steve McPherson, Bob Iger allegedly asked "What's the (projected production) deficit per episode on 'CSI' ?." McPherson explained it would be about a million dollars. "We can't do that," Iger supposedly said. "Michael won't understand how we can spend a million dollars a show to (help) subsidize CBS."

With Bob now insisting that - strictly for cost-savings reasons - Disney pass up the opportunity to co-produce "CSI" with Bruckheimer, Braun and McPherson demanded a meeting with Eisner. Arguing that - if Disney pulled out of  this crime drama now that CBS had committed to shooting a "CSI" pilot - this would then make it extremely difficult for ABC Entertainment Television Group  to sell its TV shows to the  other networks. 

Copyright CBS Entertainment. All rights reserved

But as Stewart explained:

... the "CSI" situation seemed to bring out his competitive instinct to inflict failure on a rival. In the final meeting, Eisner said that he didn't care if "CSI" was a hit if it were on a network other than ABC. He also warned that Bruckheimer was a profligate spender, and the deficits would probably be a lot more than one million per episode. Besides, he didn't think CBS would be willing to pick up the production costs, and if Disney pulled out, the show would die, creating a hole in the CBS line-up. Braun was ordered to call Bruckheimer and pull the plug.

The unflappable Bruckheimer took the news calmly. He was disappointed but gracious. But Eisner and Iger underestimated his determination, and that of Les Moonves, the head of CBS. Instead of dropping "CSI," as they had anticipated, CBS lined up another producer, Alliance Atlantis Communications, which presold some foreign rights to raise $800,000 per episode, an amount that nearly covered the projected deficit. CBS financed the rest, minimizing the potential loss. CBS placed "CSI" as the centerpiece of its Friday night schedule for fall 2000.

Copyright CBS Entertainment. All rights reserved

So when you get right down to it, it wasn't just one guy (i.e. Michael Eisner) making a bad decision that ultimately caused The Walt Disney Company to miss out on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Truth be told, Eisner, Bob Iger, Stuart Bloomberg  and Jamie Tarses all share the blame. With each of them making smaller individual decisions that eventually resulted in "CSI: Las Vegas" and its two spin-offs, "CSI: NY" and "CSI: Miami" making bajillions of dollars for CBS.

But you have to ask yourself: if Disney had been smart enough to hang onto "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," would the Imagineers have then used this super-popular TV franchise as the inspiration for a theme park attraction?

Which - I know - sounds somewhat unlikely. Given "CSI" 's grisly subject matter and all. But that wouldn't necessarily have been a deal breaker with Disney and WDI.

Copyright Dimension Films. All rights reserved

Seriously. Do you remember back in the mid-to-late 1990s when Disney's Dimension Films' division was releasing those "Scream" movies? While this trio of slasher films were making beaucoup bucks at the box office, the Imagineers took a long and hard look at building a thrill ride for Disney's Hollywood Studios that was to have starred Ghostface. One that was to have featured the same trackless ride system technology that's used to such great effect in Tokyo Disneyland's Pooh's Hunny Hunt. But in the end, Michael Eisner just couldn't see his way clear to okaying construction of a slasher-themed attraction for a Disney theme park. So - in the end - the development budget for DHS's "Scream" ride was (ironically enough) slashed.

Getting back to "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" now: What would a theme park attraction built around this popular TV franchise have been like? Well, I'd have to imagine that it would have been a lot like "CSI: The Experience!" which opened at the MGM Grand back in September of 2009.

Now as you might expect, "CSI: The Experience!" deals with some pretty graphic subject matter. Which is why this relatively new Las Vegas attraction is recommended for ages 12 and up. But this interactive experience places you right in the middle of the world of "CSI." Just like the stars of the TV show, you have to deal with multiple mysteries (to be specific, three murders that involve 15 different suspects). And you then have to use the lab stations within this exhibit to examine bullet casings and match DNA to potential suspects. You'll even be asked to identify the source of a single strand of hair.

Copyright 2010 MGM Resorts International. All rights reserved

As you make your way through two state-of-the-art forensic crime labs, you'll be guided via video by the stars of the "CSI" TV show. You'll also hear from real-life forensic scientists, who'll walk you through the processes & procedures that you'll need to master if you're to become a successful crime scene investigator.

It's typically takes MGM Grand visitors an hour to 90 minutes to get  all the way through "CSI: The Experience!" But given what you'll see (plus that CSI diploma that you'll be awarded at the end of experience), I can guarantee that the time that you spend in this faux forensic lab will stay with you for years yet to come.

"CSI: The Experience!" is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets for the last tour are sold at 9 p.m., but "CSI: The Experience" always stays open 'til 10 p.m. so that MGM Grand visitors can complete their experience.

Photo courtesy of EMS Exhibits Inc.

And speaking of tickets ... If you'd like to save on admission for "CSI: The Experience!," might I suggest that you drop by the Best of Vegas website. Which is currently offered discounted tickets to this MGM-Grand-in-the-Studio-Walk attraction.

For further information on this offer, please click this link.

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  • CSI will never make it as a theme park attraction. It is just too grisly.  It's just too bad that Disney could have enjoyed another successful show that didn't implode in a few years.  Disney doesn't get it with adult dramatic shows.

  • I still miss Star Trek: The Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton.

    It was a pretty amazing museum of everything Star Trek, that was interesting even if you weren't a fan. It was a ball having Klingon's, Farengi's, and Borg walking around in character, and I could not (and still can't) believe what had happened to me when I was suddenly beamed aboard the Enterprise.

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