CSI Creator Reveals Strategies Defining New Approach to TV

Anthony Zuiker, creator and executive producer, CSI

Anthony Zuiker, creator and executive producer, CSI

January 23, 2012 – As keynote speaker at the Media Innovations Summit last fall, CSI creator and executive producer Anthony Zuiker brought to light a vision of television’s future which goes beyond tech talk to the heart of the creative fervor that is driving what promises to be a revolution in mainstream video entertainment.
It’s certainly about “transmedia,” where a TV program leverages all outlets and means of monetization to drive audience engagement. But, as Zuiker makes clear and has demonstrated in his Level 26 “digi-novel” series, it’s also about new approaches to storytelling and the freedom of creative people to innovate and reap the rewards of innovation in ways that overcome the waste and cumbersome approaches to hit-making that characterize today’s TV business.

What follows are excerpts from Zuiker’s speech and an ensuing Q&A session led by ScreenPlays editor Fred Dawson with participation from audience members. We pick up with Zuiker’s comments after he showed clips from the latest installment of his Level 26 digi-novel series, Dark Revelations.

Anthony Zuiker – During the [2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America] strike I thought of a concept called the digi-novel. What a digi-novel is it takes all the best in movies, social communities and publishing and wraps it into one experience. The first digi-novel was called Level 26: Dark Origins.

Did you know – I saw this on the BBC when I was in Japan – there was a documentary – that there are 25 levels of evil on the evil scale that measures serial killers – manner of death, mode of death, intelligence, geography, number of kills, that kind of thing? So I said to myself, if there are 25 levels of serial killer, why don’t we do Level 26: Dark Origins, where we have a fictitious level [that involves] trying to catch a forensics-proof killer. His name is Sqweegel. You might have seen Sqweegel, our forensic-proof killer in latex with a zipper and cut-out eyes, very scary, on CSI last year.

We launched the digi-novel, and it became a New York Times best seller and sort of an international phenomenon as a first of its kind. Basically, you read the book and with every 25 pages you read, you log into a website, enter a code, and it unlocks a piece of motion picture footage which will bridge you from one chapter to another. It’s like getting a movie inside the book. And then you go to Level26.com, where you control hundreds of thousands of people that bought the book, and we’re able to elaborate story lines, connect with our fans and really control the people who come to the site and also monetize the situation.

That was a new innovation in the iTouch days, pre iPad. We went on to develop book two of that series called Dark Prophesy. We understood we’re never going to be in the book space to revolutionize books as a tangible artifact inside a store. Book stores are shutting down left and right. In Dark Prophesy we wanted to make sure we did the future of the book in an app form for the iPad.

We told ourselves the user wants different levels of engagement. Kindle is one level of engagement. But for Dark Prophesy we wanted to have a level of engagement where you can just read the book, read the book and watch the movie and read the book, watch the movie and have all kinds of bells and whistles where you can be reading the book and when you read about a gunshot, a gunshot goes off or there are blood drops when somebody gets killed or there are sound effects, a baby crying or a phone ringing. You can touch characters’ names in the book and a bio pops up with a carousel of pictures. You’ll have a movie trailer that will pop up. You can actually play with Tarot cards.

We’ve taken all the bells and whistles and all the things we think a book may turn into in the future ahead of its time and launched it in the interactive digi-novel called Dark Prophesy. When we launched that for the iPad it actually shot up to number one in books for the iPad, which is really interesting, because number two was Thomas the Train. Of the top 25 books, if you look at iPad for iTunes, 24 of them are children’s books, and then we had ours. It was number one for a while.

Although it’s $13 and although it wasn’t a runaway success, when I talked to Apple about this, they were very quick to say, the win was in the doing. Being first in to do something like this was extraordinary. And we were able to learn a lot by really giving audiences a level of engagement, what their tolerance level was, never restricting the visual by giving a book to read without any bells and whistles, but go as deep as you can on the levels of engagement.

The funny thing about the world we’re in, the budget for that movie, which is pretty much an hour long, is $40,000. Now if I played CSI side by side with that, which is $4 million, there really isn’t a big difference. We shot that movie on a Cannon 5D, a $2,000 camera, and the production value today with these cameras is so unbelievable that you can do high-quality content at a very, very small price.

Understanding the need of Hollywood creators is key for the future of embracing the revolution of technology, because at the end of the day the creator wants to have more artistic control; the creator wants to have more ownership. And if you ask any creator that will tell you the truth in Hollywood, they want to be the ones to be able to write, produce, direct and own CSI and control CSI and scale it globally throughout the world on every device in the future. That’s why Hollywood needs to get into the technology business and technology needs to get into the storytelling business and really bridge that gap.

I believe we’re pretty much on the brink of extinction for television as we know it, that the regime of watching pre-scheduled programming seems a bit archaic. I’m one of those guys who has FiOS TV and pays $175 a month for 655 channels, and I watch three things. Advertisers simply cannot sustain to be able to monetize and profit over the long term based on what technology is affording us, which is the ability to watch things when we want, how we want and on the go and customize the content to our liking.

Therefore my mission in Hollywood now is to be thinking about how do we engage in what’s called cross-platform storytelling. How do we take advantage of the television broadcast in terms of the launching mechanisms by thinking a TV show isn’t just the broadcast [every] Thursday at 9, but thinking about television, Web, gaming and mobile all as a 24/7 experience? [For example, if we were] launching CSI in a premier, the second it’s over having a Web series that will follow it and beginning pushed notifications on your phone and engaging in gaming where you can unlock certain footage that will continue a story line and be afforded the luxury to participate in a live portal for CSI 24/7, not just a glorified home page, but a full commitment to the narrative and a full commitment to the fan.

What I learned from the fans is, they just want more. They want exclusive content; they want to engage. And I believe that the future of all television programs will have to come with a customized portal that will follow this kind of philosophy.

If you’re watching a cooking show, it will need to be 24 hours, seven days a week with interactive mechanisms where you can download recipes and be able to interact with certain hosts and go throughout the globe and touch base with other people in the food industry. In terms of comedies and dramas we’re going to have to pre-bake the cross-platform mechanism and game plan before the show is created.

It’s a little late for CSI now; it’s already been on the air for 12 years, ten years and eight years. But in terms of the future of storytelling, the future of television shows, you’ll now have production meetings where you have literally a writer, director producer, casting and also a whole separate wing for cross platform in terms of the mobile side, the gaming side, the Web side, to be able to make sure the story lines are congruent.

I think shows like X Factor and American Idol just aren’t capitalizing on the opportunities. Sure, it’s great for Dance with the Stars to call for 99 cents to vote, and they’re making a lot of money off of that. But the second somebody gets kicked off of X Factor you should be able to log into a Web site and watch them compete online for their lives. So you can drive audiences from broadcast, which is 10, 15, 20 million people, and drive them to a Web site and monetize them and give them more extensive content that continues the narrative, not just a pit stop to purchase other items. And I believe that really is the future.

For us, although our digi-novel was considered a creative blockbuster success, it was not necessarily a financial success. But the win was in the doing. It allowed us to gain recognition as a company to get our own YouTube channel as of a couple weeks ago, and now we’re going to be launching [Tony Valenzuela’s] BlackBox Television with Anthony Zuiker Presents, which [in the latter case entails] 12 individual shorts that are going to be genre specific, where I can now write and direct 50-minute shorts and use them as testing grounds for pilots where I can control and own intellectual property so that when I go to a cable network or a network to sell it to them, I’ll have much more leverage in the ownership. Also, Tony Valenzuela is doing 38 different horror shorts.

So we essentially have YouTube to back our action, finance our creative vision; we own all of the content. We can leverage it with studios and networks and cable outlets for the creative to maintain ownership of the characters and the concepts and have much more ownership going forward as we scale. At YouTube and Google, we’re essentially trying to be virtually MGM where over the course of many years, two, three, five, ten years, we’ll do high premium content at the highest level with 100 percent ownership to accrue valuation for our company, which is something you simply can’t do in the network system or the cable system.


ScreenPlays – You’ve gone from being the great dream come true for Hollywood with a massive hit to Hollywood’s worst nightmare. You’re set to break free; you want to do all these things. How are people reacting to your new ideas?

Zuiker – I think the sentiment in town is the fact that the network is happy that I’m working on television, because obviously the investment they make in myself is to do another CSI type show, which is a very big task, because obviously a show like that comes around every 20 years. They’re not mad at me, but they’re listening very closely, because they know their regime is coming to an end in so many ways. The ability to watch content on platforms is becoming more and more proficient. The television set in my house for my children is just dusty. They just don’t watch it. They’re consuming everything on the iPad and the laptop for the most part.

SP – Is there a way to get them interested, even though they may not be watching the tube, in new programming as a function of the things you’re talking about?

Zuiker – Well, yeah. It’s hard to go into existing television shows and infuse bells and whistles to get you to engage interactively. But I believe the future of creation of television shows will have a level of interactivity inside of it. So my son, who’s 11 years old, may be apt to watch an iCarly episode knowing there’s some interactivity there that he needs to acquire by watching the program that will help him in the next platform, rather than just passively watching. The Food Channel is great. I watch it all day long, but if you’re watching close enough, you’re watching the same episodes for seven days, and you just want something more.

SP – In respect to what happened ten years ago with reality television, it brought a huge change in television, but there the carrot for the studios was, oh, wow, we can do this cheap, and if people love it, it’s a big win for us. What you’re talking about, and I know things have gotten cheaper in production and what have you, but if you’re going to create a prime-time quality television series and then build the back stories and build all these other elements, is Hollywood ready to recognize that vision at what looks like a higher budgetary level or are you able to come in at a cost neutral level with all those extras?

Zuiker – The bottom line is, Hollywood is very wasteful. Here’s the math. There are 80 scripts they purchase. They shoot 12 pilots at $10 million apiece. And then you put three on the air. So you’re flushing $150 million away that never gets repurposed. I don’t understand why Hollywood would not at least get together and do a cable channel of failed pilots. You’re $10 million in on things that aren’t great, but aren’t awful, and you can probably monetize and get your money back over time.

But it’s very wasteful. Even CSI will shoot $4-million shows but will leave a lot of money on the cutting room floor that we never even air. And, by the way, there are a lot of shows like CSI and House that have been shot with low-cost cameras. You don’t have to spend so much money on these Panavision cameras where you’re shooting thousands of feet of films with transference. As the technology of the cameras gets better and cheaper it will take some of the pressure off your budget to have more money to have extra content inside the television show so you could have that 24/7 experience interactively as you scale. People want more than just tuning Thursday at 9 and a week later you come back. That just seems preposterous. And with TiVo where you can tape and DVR and blur through the commercials, there’s just no future for how TV is right now.

SP – I think a lot of us agree with that for sure. I think the question is, will new ideas catch on and build an audience? We have this fragmentation that’s going to happen no matter what, no matter how successful things are. One of the appealing things about what you’re suggesting is you may have a smaller audience for a hit but if you can keep that audience engaged through the week instead of one hour a week, you’re actually multiplying that audience in terms of the metrics that matter to advertisers.

Zuiker – Well, I think so. Look, advertisers are realizing there’s a lot of wasteful money on the sideline, a lot of money where they just don’t know where to put it. Trying to sell something to everybody seems like a mistake to me. A 16-year-old and a 60-year-old have different tastes. I feel like the future of TV will probably be where there will be artificial intelligence that will know who’s in the room, that will cater to you if you’re watching football for Bud Lite commercials, and the second the Mrs. comes in, you have a Pirates of Caribbean V trailer to take her out that weekend and buy her a brand new X5 BMW.

At the end of the day TV will be much more customized, TV will be much more of a search mechanism like Google where, if you want to watch Muhammad Ali content, you’ll type in Muhammad Ali and get a bunch of fights options, you’ll be clicking and previewing for a sample, you’ll be monetizing and paying, but it will be much more of a search engine rather than telling you that you have to watch a specific program at a specific time.

SP –The news came out you have a new idea that ABC is taking a look at, the Chameleon concept, which is I guess a female FBI agent that specializes in disguises. That sounds like something that would work very well in this multi-pronged backstory domain you’ve been talking about. Is that part of the plan?

Zuiker – It’s possible. First and foremost I’m trying to develop the TV show first, making sure the show makes sense and we do a good job on that. But if you think about it, if you’re running a show about an undercover female agent that works for the LAPD that has to assume different personas and costumes to infiltrate and grab intelligence to take down a bad guy, you know a couple of things: one, it’s going to be very procedural to where there’s a case from week to week. And, second, when our character takes her costumes off and she’s just herself, we begin to learn that she’s incredibly vulnerable without her armor on, and that’s the most interesting part about the show.

My point is that the lion’s share of the storytelling will be the procedural part of her getting the bad guy, but it’s the subtlety in her backstory and the subtlety of her personal story which is engaging to an audience. That can be opened up much more online. And then you can begin to interact with the main character; you can send her information, and she can send you information back. She can be hiding a secret; she may need your help to do something. She may need to know a location to go take a picture to give her something to solve some other gaming mechanism. If you do that the proper way, it unlocks new footage – some of the tease up, the promo for next week. TV should be treated as a launching mechanism that facilitates the narrative onto the Web to scale, not be the primary source of entertainment in the future.

Question from Audience – Regarding search-engine driven discovery, it’s a big issue. Certainly the studios and networks have known for decades how to drive viewership. Search engines raise a lot of issues of how they know they want to look for something other than finding the next Anthony Zuiker program. What do you think is really going to happen to encourage promotion and awareness of all this great content that’s available other than viral and social networks?

Zuiker – Well, look, here’s our problem, the same problem we have with the app store. I just found Flick Home Run. I play it so much my soul mate gets mad at me for playing it all the time. My point is there are over a half million apps in the marketplace, and we can’t find them unless it’s word of mouth. It’s very hard to find those jewels in the rough.

It’s no different in terms of finding content you want to watch. There’s so much great stuff I don’t know about, and I really don’t know how to get at it. I want to get at it, and the first person who writes an algorithm that tells me how to get at it and finds out what I want before I know what I want, is [creating] utopia. And that’s going to happen.

There will always be the need for premium content from the networks. There will always be a need to entertain people from 8 o’clock to 11 o’clock and then have late-night TV. That will never change. But what will change is our insatiable appetite to watch content at our beck and call and be able to search and watch what we want to watch when we want to watch on the go.

Amazon just barely does it right, and they’re hugely successful. If you like Jim Croce you’ll like Simon and Garfunkel. That’s a recommendation app that actually works for them, and that’s a nothing. Imagine you have an insatiable appetite for a type of content and not only do you have somebody show it to you through an algorithm, but it brings new things to life, because every question you ask, it learns.

SP – You used the term artificial intelligence earlier. I think we’re seeing that creep into the whole search and discovery domain, and some interesting things are taking shape there. Probably in another two or three years we’ll be in a position to get you what you’re looking for.

Zuiker –For example, I’m going to see Andres Bocelli in December in Las Vegas. Because I’m so curious about Bocelli and trying to get ready for his singing, I typed Bocelli in the YouTube search engine and found his BBC documentary, which is cut into 16 pieces, which is irritating to watch. But my point is I was able to at least initiate Bocelli and find his documentary, which was very rarified. I was completely sucked into it; I wanted to have more.

I feel that’s the appetite that will have to be built in the marketplace to not only give you what you want when you want it, but to let you go as deep as possible and make other recommendations to where it knows what you want before you want. I think the networks want to believe they’ll sustain the old regime, but I know behind closed doors they know it’s all changing.

Audience Question – I was really struck by the difference between the number $40,000 and $4 million. I wonder what are the barriers that stop you from making an episode of CSI for $40,000?

Zuiker – It might be hard to ask an A-list actor to work for three grand. The actors are expensive; insurance is expensive; locations are expensive; writers; directors. It’s a very expensive business. Creators like myself are willing to take the financial hit to have ownership.

We had a bridge conference with Marc Andreessen and some of the guys at Google at my lawyer’s office a couple of years ago. Everybody kept saying, hey, when do we get paid? And I believe it was [Larry] Page or Andreessen who said, it’s not about up front; it’s about in the back. It’s about having ownership. It’s about saying we’re going to do it at a price – $40,000 – and if it runs, we all win, rather than we all get paid up front.

The networks, God bless them, take all the risk. They put so much money out, and when the show flops, we still get paid as writers, producers and actors. They’re the ones who take the hit. But, in the future, it’s about how we give the consumers the highest level of content possible and take the highest level of ownership possible and accrue and own the content so we have valuation going forward, so we can be the next MGM. So that’s what we’re thinking about in the future, which is radical, rebellious, but it’s what the future is for me.

Audience Question – When does Google commission you to do a creative product that’s not destined for television or that’s not a bargaining chip for a better television rights deal?

Zuiker – We have a $2 ½ million channel with YouTube that we just got awarded a couple of weeks ago. They’re not taking anything in terms of our ownership of the content. So what we want to do is earn back the initial investment, and there’s a healthy split going forward.

So the challenge for us in the short term is to make that money back on the investment and then be able to utilize that conglomerate of traffic to gather a following through our channel so we’re able to monetize and go forward while we’re accruing and putting in the bank premium content. It’s very exciting.

Will it work? If it does work, it’s really utopia. Controlling traffic is so huge, and being able to drive traffic from other channels back to us is so huge. YouTube can only make so much money on cats up trees and all kinds of funny videos. They want to be in the premium content business, and they’re reaching out to the elite of Hollywood to do that, and I think it’s a step in the right direction, whether it works or not.

Audience Question – I want to be clear what I meant by that. This is not a criticism, but it seems you’re still using this new medium and the funding that’s associated with it to drive a deal with greater ownership than an existing one. What I was getting at was in your view of the future based on your comments about the younger generation, etc., when do you think the day happens when you’re commissioned to do something that is not destined for television in the way we conceive of it today?

Zuiker – When you make content of any format, you need some level of distribution. You need someone to finally see it. Google provides an amazing outlet for that. Can you start your white label.com and put content on there and have full ownership? You may sacrifice yourself in scale, but I think that’s part two of where things are going. But we realize that, A, we want to have more ownership and creative control; B, there are big players like Facebook and Google that want to be in that business. So partnering up seems to be a great idea to go forward, and we’ll see how it fleshes out.

SP – With connected TVs and the boxes that are connecting old TVs to the Web, I think that creates the opportunity to bridge that gap. As Anthony has said repeatedly, television as we know it, including the distribution medium itself, is going away. You can start from any of those points and you can say I’m creating something for television, but what’s that? It’s really I’m creating something for people to access anytime, anywhere on whatever device it is. And if it happens to be a big screen, they can get it there as well.

Zuiker – The big upside is, it’s going to get made. In my new business it’s getting made. [In the old business] once you pitch it and they say no, it’s dead. But when you make it yourself, it’s made, whether the buyer wants to buy it or not. Whether buyer one, two or three says no, there’s always buyer four, five or six. Once you make it, it has a chance.

Audience Question – Who in the technology world is helping you to bridge so you’re not having to tackle each platform independently.

Zuiker – We’re going to do it brick by brick. [For example] we’re going to look at the Amazon model and see how we can better that. There’s some guy on Amazon right now, I don’t know his name, he’s running novels at 150 pages, selling them for $1 and making $3 million a month. That’s amazing. There are so many ways to skin the cat with the world we live in. So we’re working very close with Silicon Valley, educating us about scale technology, what people like and don’t like. I buy a lot of apps; I play a lot of apps. We’re going to take it one segment at a time and see if we can move this industry forward the best way we can.

SP – The creative community is now getting very, very good at technology. You’re exhibit A on that. I was in New York a few weeks ago listening not just to content people, but the advertising people, the immensity of their understanding of the technological tools at their disposal. People know what to do with this stuff, where to go for this stuff and where to get their problems solved and how to get it out there.

Zuikeer – Look, it’s going to take one show, maybe somebody else, one show to come in and do it properly and engage the audience beyond the one hour to 24/7. That will change everything. I was reading an article about Steve Jobs the other day. He took the scare out of the tablet with the iPad, which is pretty great. We’re looking to take the scare out of pushing this industry in terms of cross-platform storytelling and trying to do it the right way the first time, and it will change the face of all television programs going forward. It’s about to happen, whether it’s me or not.

SP – Thank you very much Anthony.