'NCIS': Why the Emmys Always Have Snubbed (and Always Will Snub) TV's Top Show
If timing is everything, then "NCIS" has nothing. At least where the Primetime Emmys are concerned.
No, TV's most-watched show was not nominated for Outstanding Drama Series, nor has it ever been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series, nor perhaps will it ever be nominated.
"I just couldn't see it happening," says Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, author of "TV Cops: The Contemporary American Television Police Drama."
Maybe we should rephrase: Bad timing is everything.
The beginning of the end was in the beginning. In 2004, the first year that "NCIS" was eligible for an Emmy, "The Sopranos" became the first cable show to claim the top drama prize.
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Prior to the breakthrough win, broadcast TV, episodic TV, police procedurals, and spinoffs — "NCIS," a descendant of "JAG," for those who have forgotten, is a member of all four categories — were welcome in the Drama Series category, sometimes beyond welcome. For nearly 40 years, from 1962 to 2003, if you weren't broadcast and you weren't episodic, you probably weren't nominated. During roughly the same period, there was no notion that police shows were nonstarters with Emmy voters because they weren't. In the 1980s, for instance, "Hill Street Blues" and "Cagney & Lacey" together collected six of that decade's drama series wins. "Law & Order" claimed the trophy in 1997. "CSI" was nominated for three straight years, from 2002 to 2004. Spinoffs were represented, too, with the likes of "Lou Grant," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and, more recently, "Boston Legal" earning nods and the odd win.
But then came "The Sopranos."
Since its victory in 2004, only two broadcast TV shows, "Lost" and "24," have prevailed in the category; not one episodic series has won.
For "NCIS," things only got worse after "The Sopranos" bowed out.
In 2008, even as "NCIS" began surging in the Nielsen ratings, "Mad Men" and "Damages" crashed the basic-cable ceiling (with "Mad Men" notching its first drama series win), and the game was really, truly over for broadcast, episodic, police-procedural, spinoff TV.
"In general, these dramas coming out of AMC and FX and HBO and Showtime and Netflix, they're able to explore darker corners," says Nichols-Pethick. "They're infinitely more captivating. They're able to be a lot braver. Really just because of regulation, [broadcast shows] just can't go to those places as easily."
Also, a cable show can get there in 13 episodes or less; the broadcast model still usually dictates that producers crank out 22 episodes.
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And so the numbers, from the prodigious work orders to the ever-growing number of cable (and now streaming) shows fighting for spots at the table (go talk Emmy snubs with a "Sons of Anarchy" fan), don't add up for "NCIS," perhaps the ultimate example of right show, wrong time. It's a giant, all right — an impressive dinosaur at the end of the Mesozoic Era.
"I actually don't think 'NCIS' would ever win, even as a sentimental thing ... especially with the cable networks out to make the next show that everybody's talking about," says Nichols-Pethick.
And being talked about has never been one of the strengths of "NCIS," what with the bad timing and all.