The last day of the fourth annual NATPE LATV Fest kicked off early this morning at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Century City with a panel entitled "Coffee With Mark Horowitz, NCIS Executive Producer." During the hour-plus panel (and a few one-on-one minutes with our Jim Halterman post-coffee) the producer may have mum about upcoming storylines in the 8th season but did talk about what Don Bellisario brought to the show, how they made CBS's "NCIS" more than just "that JAG spin-off" and what is responsible for the show being more popular than ever.
8:35 AM - TV Guide's Contributing Writer Chris Willman serves as moderator and since Chris has covered "NCIS" for the magazine for the last year and a half, Mark says right off the bat, "You probably know more about the show than I do!"
8:36 AM - After Chris tries unsuccessfully to get some scoop about stories in the new season, Mark talks about the dynamics on the show. "I've always described the show as being a show about the kids trying to please Dad... in a strange way, there are many parallels to that dynamic in the real television world of 'NCIS.' I think there's a dynamic of actors trying to please the producers, there was a dynamic of producers trying to please Don Bellisario. That whole thing of having a father figure and then everything that happens about the group that surrounds them is really the show."
8:41 AM - In terms of character, Mark said it was not an accident that the early seasons of the series focused more on the case as opposed to developing character. To credit [series creator] Don Bellisario, "he very carefully, very deliberately minimized doling out too much personal information too soon. The tendency is if you have a little bit of success is to spill your guts." For example, it was only in this past season that viewers were allowed for the first time to see the living room of Special Agent Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon).
8:42 AM - Chris asks about the early days when "NCIS" was merely thought of as "JAG, Part 2" since it was a spin-off of that successful series, also created by Bellisario. One thing that worked for "NCIS" was the amount of humor and how it was used. Mark says, "If you look back at all the shows of Don Bellisario there's always been humor in those shows like 'Magnum'... and it was humor based on humanness and human flaws and human insecurities and he truly had a touch for that... in the first real 'NCIS' episode when the script came out and everyone was reading it I have to say that everyone was a little surprised that it was so funny."
8:46 AM - Asked about the period when things weren't going well on the production side of the set and it led to Don Bellisario leaving the show. Mark recalls that when Don was running things "it was not unusual for us to start filming with the first two acts and really not knowing what was going to happen next. The third day you'd get act three and the fourth or fifth day you'd get the fourth... it was kind of wacky."
8:55 AM - A clip from a Mark Horowitz-directed episode is shown with actor Michael Weatherly (who plays Tony DiNozzo) interrogating a hospital bedridden suspect, whose heart rate increases as he is questioned. A great example of how the show melds the procedural elements with humor.
8:58 AM - Mark gives a shout-out to Michael and says "he's the smartest, funniest, best looking guy I know and nobody should be allowed to be all those things. You can be two but... he brought a lot of the character to the screen himself. Somewhere around the third or fourth show he started just riffing. We'd be in rehearsal and he'd come up with something that wasn't on the page at all... " Of course, the writers saw the value in that and started writing to that humor.
9:00 AM - Chris asks about the recent news that the cast was going through salary negotiations. "It's a very real world," says Mark. "One thing about the television business is that it never stops changing... we are in this economic downturn with advertisers and how much profit is in each show... negotiations are one thing but everyone who works on this show including all the regular cast members have a very clear idea of what this opportunity is. These are the good old days right now." Good news is that negotiations are over and everyone is returning.
9:03 AM - Mark smiles as he remembers the very first day of shooting episode one when there was a cast photo taken. "You could just look at them and say 'that's a television show! Look at that!'
9:05 AM - Speaking of the gradual climb in the ratings for the show, Mark gives credit to syndication. "There are people who watch television who have habits. They watch cable and they like those networks and if you started watching NCIS on cable and you happened to start catching the marathons and you'd watch one episode and then another... what happened was we got delivered an audience on Tuesday nights later on who came to the show with tremendous background because you could watch 12 episodes in a day!" Mark also says he hears from younger viewers who have just discovered the show at this stage in its run.
9:08 AM - Q&A time and an audience member asks about cable's non-procedural shows like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." Do those types of shows have a place on the network? Mark says "I think they do... honestly I think some of the best dramatic work being done right now is on television. The traditional drama that might have been an adult feature drama that you'd go to a theater to see don't seem to happen financially anymore... so if you're yearning for that kind of drama, I think it's on television."
9:11 AM - Asked about the first year success of the "NCIS" spin-off, "NCIS:LA," Mark says, "I'm not involved in 'LA.' I was involved with the 'NCIS' episode, the backdoor pilot, but you have a couple of charismatic guys. LL Cool J has a tremendous presence... he's very grounded, he's very blessed, he has a very clear sense of who he is and I think a lot of him comes through... they're working on their own secret sauce. They're going to find what works for them and it takes time to figure that stuff out"
9:14 AM - Mark marvels at how close the cast of "NCIS" is and shares "our biggest problem in our show is that everyone loves each other so much you can't get them to stop talking!"
After the panel, Jim had the chance to talk to Mark one-on-one for a few minutes...
Jim Halterman: Personally, have you always been into procedural television before you ever worked on them?
Mark Horowitz: Not at all. I didn't even know what a procedural was. I'm not sure I would have watched 'NCIS' based on what I saw unless I accidentally stumbled through an episode and then I would have watched. I've always been interested in character driven pieces.
JH: Now that the show is more popular than ever, does it keep you from wanting to do any further tweaking because you want to keep everyone happy including the viewers?
MH: Yes, for the most part. You don't want it to go stale but you also don't want to jump the shark and that's something that we did talk about. We don't want to get too hip for our own good. The way that it stays fresh is that it just stays true and if those characters remain honest in who they are and it doesn't get diluted in any way or confused than all that real, humanness that our characters have - they're insecurities, their wants, their desires - if that stays right then I think you can just go. It's something the people respond to. They can see those aspects of their personality in those characters and if that stays right you don't have to mess around with it.
JH: In terms of social media like Twitter and Facebook, do you see something shifting in terms of how television is perceived and how viewers interact?
MH: I do and I think that the future of television - I say that I'm not involved [in social media] and I'm not because there's only so many hours in the day - but I think the future of television in some cases, not completely, is you're going to see more and more influence between a show going on and the response from an audience. I think there's room to experiment with those ideas. There were notions in the past with movies where an audience would watch and at a certain point the picture would stop and audiences would vote which way they wanted the story to go. There's been some experimentation with that and you could see even more of that happening in real time.
JH: During the panel you talked a little about the importance of family structure of procedurals. How important is that?
MH: It's timeless. It's caveman. It's just a part of the fabric of who we are. Human beings are fascinated by other human beings. Everybody finds everything else very, very interesting in how people react and how this person thinks and what would happen if this person said that... it's your own office standing around the water cooler. I see it even on our own set. There's all this gossiping going on. When you put that in a television show people can relate to it.
JH: Any guest stars coming up in the new season?
MH: I'm not sure what I can reveal. I think I can reveal that I hope that RJ (Robert Wagner) comes back to visit. That's not 100% but I'm hoping we'll do another episode with Robert Wagner. We had an absolute ball. He was about the coolest guy I'd met in a long time. He's got a way of reigniting a show and bringing energy to a show. You bring a character like DiNozzo's Dad, played by RJ and then Robert and Michael had their own chemistry that just became instant because they had so much in common. Michael's a real smart guy and you see a great deal of him in RJ and it's very real. There's all this stuff happening at the same time. We're always looking for that kind of thing.
That's a wrap from NATPE's LATV Fest! See you again next year!