Twelve years ago, Anthony Zuiker was earning US$8 an hour as a train driver at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Today, the 39-year old TV producer is at the helm of one of the most lucrative series franchises in television history, CSI, which now comprises three different shows, each with huge international followings. To say Zuiker's life has undergone a profound change in the past decade or so would be an understatement. And he owes it all to the fact that he took something he was personally interested in and turned it into something for the masses, navigating uncharted territory in the process.
'The thing about Hollywood that people don't really know about is that they're always looking for something new,' says Zuiker, wearing a dark blazer and sitting in what is usually the interrogation room on the Los Angeles set of CSI: New York. 'There are spotters that are hired to find new talent, and there's never a lack of appetite to grab a piece of great intellectual property, or find the next young actor, the next hot writer, the next great producer. There's always a need to find that person.'
Zuiker's big break started with an idea. In the summer of 1999, he and his wife were watching a docudrama called New Detectives that told the story of a murder solved by the retrieval of a hair follicle from a car seat. 'I said to myself, 'Wow, all of that just on one single hair follicle', and the fascination for forensic science at that point began,' says Zuiker. 'It really was that show that started the whole thing.'
The original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is about to start its eighth season, and sister shows CSI: Miami and CSI: New York are in their sixth and fourth, respectively. But Zuiker shoots down any notion of another spin-off. He says he is less concerned about market saturation than about the future of television, which he sees as under threat from newer media platforms.
'I feel a television set needs to always be the primary device in the house that [delivers] content [and] brings people together. I'm concerned about ... human interaction. We're able to consume content on devices that don't include anybody else watching at the same time. At a time when people need to be brought together and have more interaction, we're in a technology boom encouraging people not to be together.'
Zuiker wants to secure the place of TV as people's primary source of entertainment, and plans internet-based shows and content for mobile phones and gaming platforms that coaxes viewers back to the TV every week. 'That's the future of doing television properly,' he says.
For now, the CSI formula keeps millions of people coming back to their TVs for more. 'People love that formula,' he says. 'We don't change that. If we got a viewer to take a CSI script and give it to Miami or a New York script and give it to Las Vegas,
it would feel very foreign. There's a certain rhythm in our three shows. The storylines are very city-centric. And we feel like the shows are very different in terms of tone and how we tell stories but yet it still feels like it's under the umbrella of how CSI does television.'
But the formula is the same: there are killings in the teaser, flashbacks, suspects are brought in, evidence is followed, and the case is solved in 40 minutes. Like anything that's a proven hit, CSI has had its imitators, which Zuiker regards as a form of flattery. 'No one could quite do it like us at CSI,' he says.
Despite the consistently enviable ratings, the show has yet to draw major critical acclaim; the reviews are mostly kind, but the actors are always overlooked when it comes to the Emmys and Golden Globes. 'I just don't think it's that kind of show,' says Zuiker. 'I don't think the academy that judges shows particularly favours procedurals, so I feel directors and writers have been unfairly passed over. The show, concept-wise, works, but for us it's not really about awards. I think we have critical acclaim in people's hearts and we have great cast members and we don't really put too much thought into awards ceremonies. At least I don't.'
Zuiker calls himself a 'frustrated movie writer having a love affair with television', but quashes rumours of a possible CSI movie. For now, CSI and two other series he has in development are all there is.
'Television is simply grand. It's a daily struggle. You write a scene.
You shoot it. It's on the air two days later. It's constant action and the train runs so fast. You see your work instantaneously. It's just very gratifying. Whereas with movie jobs you spend 10 weeks writing, you get notes, you come back, you write for another year and a half and they usually never even say 'Thank you' or 'We'll make it'. It's a very lonely process,' he says.
'Here, I love the collaboration of being with other creative people making a TV show from week to week and have the audience respond instantaneously. For me, there's nothing like television.'
CSI season eight premieres on AXN at 11pm, March 5