by Jim Longworth
Photo courtesy David Zentz
Anthony Zuiker began his "show biz" career as an $8 per hour tram operator for a Vegas hotel. Back then his passengers hailed from around the globe, so Anthony wrote "The International Phonetic Language Booklet", which enabled him to converse with his patrons in their native tongues.
Even then, young Mr. Zuiker recognized the importance of communicating his message to a diverse audience - a revelation that helped him create one of the most successful franchises in the history of television, starting with "CSI".
The flagship show spawned "CSI: Miami", "CSI: New York", and now "CSI: Cyber", the latter of which follows a team of agents (led by Oscar winner Patricia Arquette) who investigate any crime involving electronic devices. I first met and interviewed Anthony fifteen years ago as he was preparing to launch "CSI". In March of 2015 we talked about his latest incarnation of the franchise.
Longworth: What gave you the idea to do "CSI:Cyber", instead of "CSI: Raleigh"?
Zuiker: Well we knew if we did a fourth generation of "CSI", it would not be another city. It didn't make sense to go and do a different city because we've done three previous cities. Jerry Bruckheimer had the idea of possibly doing an FBI version of "CSI", so that got us thinking. Ironically, about the same time, Mary Aiken, a cyber psychologist from Dublin, Ireland, was in Hollywood to talk about what she does for a living. Mary spoke with us about "Crime 2.0" and what that looks like now a days, and we were intrigued by that, so I wrote "CSI: Cyber", and the show was born on that day.
Longworth: Are the "CSI: Cyber" stories based on real-life cases?
Zuiker: No, not at all. There's some semblance of real life in all of these shows, but we don't necessarily rip things from the headlines, so to speak. I don't think we're going to be doing the Sony hack, but we might do a corporate hack. I don't like those type of stories personally because they're a caricature of what really happened. But if there's a specific storyline or hack, or intrusion event that inspires us, then that makes for a more organic episode.
Thus far, episodes of "CSI: Cyber" have involved crib monitors hacked by a ring of baby brokers, an electronic device that can disable the braking system of a roller coaster or a train, and the murder of passengers who purchased Uber-like transportation services online.
Longworth: One of the characters in "CSI: Cyber" said, "Technology may have made life easier, but it sure hasn't made it safer." That sounds almost like a warning to viewers to abandon technology, stop using social media and credit cards, and just go off the grid.
Zuiker: Well technology is here to stay, and there's no backing out of it. We're only going to get more and more connected. So our message surely isn't to ditch technology, it's more a message of becoming aware and diligent.
Longworth: Can your new show educate us and possibly even save lives?
Zuiker: Well, we hope. It's designed to entertain and educate, and if we save lives along the way, that would be great. But, again the message is to make people aware of what's possible, and to do what they can to protect themselves, without us being overly preachy about it, which I believe we aren't. And if somebody takes time to make a better decision about what they download, then that's a good public service.
And today, Zuiker's public is a growing universe. In addition to writing and producing television programs, Anthony has also penned five novels, and an autobiography titled, appropriately, "Mr. CSI". But it is his work in TV that has reached the largest audiences, which include a diversity of nationalities, gender, race, and age. In fact, his latest creation is an animated video series for children titled, "Mysteryopolis", which is sort of a TV show with a game in it.
Zuiker: Kids view the video on a Nabi tablet and are commanded to play a game which moves the story forward. They don't just watch the episode, they also play the episode.
Longworth: Many years ago you told me about how as a child, you used to sit in your room and invent board games. Is "CSI: Cyber" and "Mysteryopolis" an outgrowth of that curiosity and creativity?
Zuiker: I believe so. I believe that "CSI" at the end of the day is just a game, wrapped around a television show.
Though not a gambler himself, Anthony spent a lot of time in Las Vegas, and knows the ins and outs of betting. That's why I was compelled to ask him about an incredible piece of luck.
Longworth: Did you rig the Academy Awards so that Patricia would win the Oscar a week before "CSI: Cyber" premiered?
Zuiker: (laughs) No I did not, but I was checking the odds, and she was the overwhelming favorite. We had a pretty good idea she was going to win, so it was excellent timing.
Excellent timing. It's the story of Anthony Zuiker's life and success. Of course it doesn't hurt to have an active imagination. But above all, Zuiker is a communicator, the same guy who once wrote a booklet to help him relate to his tram patrons. By the way, the slogan for that booklet was, "Because there's no better way to respect a customer than to speak their language." It's a slogan that has never failed its author or his audience.
("CSI: Cyber", which also stars Peter MacNicol and James Van Der Beek, airs Wednesdays at 10pm on CBS)
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly.com, and author of the "TV Creators" series of books. He also serves as judge for the primetime EMMYs, and hosts a weekly TV show for Sinclair stations.
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