Just summing up what it takes to be considered for a Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award makes Anthony Zuiker a natural choice. Tartikoff will always be remembered as an innovative and passionate programmer and television visionary. That goes for Zuiker, too. He created CBS' CSI franchise and it became one of the most successful and influential series of the new century.
And to “evoke the spirit of Tartikoff's generosity,” as the award is described, how could NATPE and Broadcasting & Cable do better than honor a man who likes to define himself by how much he's able to give back to his family, his community and his industry?
“Like Brandon, he has a real passion for this business and a billion ideas every fifteen minutes,” says NATPE chief Rick Feldman. “And, like Brandon, he disregards the ethos in this town and doesn't follow the crowd.”
The one thing that separates Zuiker not only from Tartikoff but from winners past and present is that he hasn't been a power player all that long, like most of the previous winners.
In fact, before CSI hit the airwaves, this was a guy who was earning money as a tram operator at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas as he struggled to sell feature-film scripts.
Then, one day, his wife, Jennifer, accidentally provided—in a gently nagging way—the epiphany that changed Zuiker's life.
“You know how, when your wife is eight months pregnant, you're only allowed out for one hour a week?” Zuiker says. “Well, I had a basketball in my hand and was ready to walk out when she insisted I watch this show, New Detectives, with her. Normally, I would have just said, 'Next time' and left, but this time I stayed.”
Zuiker was struck by how modern detectives could, using science and experience, examine one strand of hair and deduce a wealth of information. Inspired by the Discovery program, he wrote his pilot script for CSI in three days. Unencumbered by knowledge of the rules of television, he whipped off a show that was both familiar (police procedural) and totally fresh, leading to not just one hit series but three, revitalizing the entire network in the process. (These days, working on his new drama, The Man, he seems to knows everything about production costs, location, actors, and CBS' audience, He jokes, “It gives me so much to think about it that by the time I type 'Fade in,' I'm exhausted.”)
But Zuiker isn't content with just a hit series or three—he's looking to transform the medium itself. “The one adjective that describes Anthony best is 'unique,'” says Carol Mendelsohn, another CSI executive producer. “He's the most creative person I've ever met, but he's also a smart businessman. He's always a forward thinker who knows no bounds: He imagines something and makes it happen. He's a force of nature.”
As an only child, Zuiker lived in his own imagination, inventing one board game after another. This kind of creative but analytical thinking first paid real dividends with the launch of the multi-sensory board game CSI: Senses. Zuiker's outside-the-(game)-box thinking then produced a live interactive show for CSI:NY viewers called CSI:Q, which involves text-messaging answers to questions about the show they're watching for a chance to win $10,000.
And he's just getting started. “I'm still warming up the brand,” he says, explaining that his next step is a CSI:Q board game with a DVD and four remotes so fans can watch the show together and answer questions not just about what has happened but about what might happen next. And in the long term, he wants to bring that concept to viewers watching actual CBS telecasts, having their phones in hand but competing for points with friends and family who may be scattered across the country.
“It makes television-watching less passive and also brings people together, re-creating a sense of community,” he says, adding that he even plans for quizzes about commercials to keep the remote out of viewers' hands.
He believes he can thus re-invent television at a time when many media experts are focused on phones, the computer and other technology, like iPods. “I know the bread-and-butter will always be the big box in your living room,” he says. “My mission for the next five years is to convince everyone from business people to wireless people about the central role of television.”
But unlike some Hollywood players, Zuiker is not so consumed with himself and his work that he forgets the world around him. “He's always willing to make time for talking to students or young producers,” says Feldman.
Zuiker—who lives in Nevada, where CSI is filmed—goes further, saying that the idea of “giving back” is a credo for him, whether helping industry neophytes, casting disabled actors or donating $1 million for a crime lab in nearby Henderson. And for all his fame and acclaim, Zuiker says that nothing made him happier than the days that he was able to write a check that would enable first his mother and then his father to retire: “Those were the defining moments in my life.”