NCIS is a wildly successful TV drama, one of the most popular series of the last 20 years. This week I recount how the DOD, Navy and Marine Corps routinely rewrite episodes of NCIS to fit their PR and propaganda goals. I look at why the relationship between the producers and the military nearly fell apart over the New Orleans spin-off show, and how the Navy commissioned an episode of NCIS to help cover up their sex crime problem.
NCIS is a runaway hit TV show. Despite recently completing its 16th season and closing in on 400 episodes it still averages over 10 million viewers per episode. It is so successful that CBS greenlit two spin-offs – NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans, both of which have run for several seasons. Though audience numbers for all three series are tailing off it is still one of the most popular TV shows in the US.
I’ve been watching a couple of dozen episodes of the various series to get my head around the military’s influence on the show and they are remarkably consistent without being especially boring. All three series have the same pace, episode structure and the same tone, which is a mix of investigative drama and character-driven comedy. It is quite similar to Bones, but with better characters.
It’s a slightly odd experience for me to watch this show because I feel almost nothing towards it – I neither like nor dislike it, but I do find it modestly compelling. Though to be honest if it wasn’t for the research aspect I wouldn’t waste my time with it.
In case you haven’t seen it or don’t know what the real NCIS is, the show is based on the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, essentially the Navy’s own internal FBI. They investigate crimes of various kinds, almost invariably solving them by the end of each week’s episode. It’s a straight down the middle piece of popular entertainment.
As such the most interesting thing about the NCIS televisual universe is that it is effectively co-produced with the US military. But unlike The Last Ship, which couldn’t have been made without the Pentagon’s support, most NCIS episodes are produced without any military production assistance. No on-location shooting at military bases, no ships or humvees or helicopters, no uniformed extras.
For those of you who don’t know the history, NCIS is itself a spin-off from JAG, the military-legal drama of the late 90s and early 2000s. Both were created by Donald Bellisario, who also created Quantum Leap, the relevance of which will become clear later. In 2003 a double episode of JAG introduced the NCIS characters, with the first season of NCIS debuting later that year.
JAG was produced with full military support – the Suid archive contains extensive files on the show. So it seems that when Bellisario developed NCIS he struck a deal with the US Navy’s entertainment liaison office that allows them to review every script for every episode, regardless of whether they provide support on that episode or whether it even depicts the Navy or the Marine Corps.
I haven’t seen this sort of deal with any other TV show, whereby the Production Assistance Agreement is on a per-episode basis, but which also enables the DOD to have influence on scripts for episodes where they aren’t even offering anything in return. If I didn’t know any better I’d say the Navy made Bellisario an offer he couldn’t refuse. The upshot of this is that the Navy, the DOD and sometimes the Marine Corps have all made changes to scripts for NCIS without actually providing any assistance on those episodes.
We’ll get into some of the details shortly but I just want to emphasise how exceptional this is, and how similar this is to classic state propaganda in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Though as we will see, the relationship has seen a few bumps in the road.
Drawing on reports from the Navy and the Marine Corps entertainment liaison offices I found that they routinely rewrite NCIS scripts, and in numerous cases we have some idea of what they’ve changed. While the reports quite often just say that notes were provided to the producers, or that a ‘major rewrite’ was taking place, they are sometimes more explicit.
As we noted in National Security Cinema one episode titled ‘Toxic’, ‘involves military personnel making bio-weapons illegally.’ This resulted in ‘significant storyline changes requested by DoD’. If you watch the episode you’ll notice that the bio-weapons are developed by a rogue scientist working for a military contractor, and not by military personnel.
In ‘Double Identity’ the story is based around a Marine who was thought to have been captured in Afghanistan who turns up in the US with a new identity. It emerges he stole millions of dollars from an Afghani drug lord, and is committing bigamy. The original script had ‘one former Marine and a Marine major… involved with stealing the money from the drug lord’, so the DOD and Marine Corps requested some changes. In the finished script the other two Marines were there with the Marine with the fake identity when he found the money in Afghanistan, but weren’t involved in actually stealing it.
Another episode ‘Enemy on the Hill’, ‘focuses on a Marine Captain who is a congressional fellow. He uses his influence on congress to embezzle money and is involved in murder.’ The Marines ‘coordinated response with DOD and provided to CBS’. This resulted in changes, so instead of embezzlement the Marine is simply taking kickbacks from military contractors to help provide for his daughter, who has special needs. He is still involved in murder, but it is self-defense against a woman who is trying to have him killed, providing some degree of mitigation.
The original script for ‘The Good Son’ featured the series star, Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon) ‘developing a friendly relationship’ with the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The Marines shared their concerns with the producers, resulting in the scenes with the Commandant being completely removed from the script.
For the episode ‘The Job’ some Marines ‘thwart an attempted burglary in a base warehouse located in San Diego’. The reports say explicitly that they ‘change[d] location to CPEN (Camp Pendleton), change warehouse to armory and change the number of security personnel’. This was presumably to make it seem more difficult to burglarise a Marine base and discourage any would-be thieves who might be watching the show.
There are a bunch of similar examples in the Navy reports too. For the NCIS: LA episode ‘Black Budget’ the original script included ‘highly objectionable scenes reminiscent of the NAVSEA WNY (Washington Navy Yard) shooting’. So the, ‘NCIS Communications Director requested significant changes from CBS and NCIS-LA Producer that resulted in mitigating what could have been “reliving” the incident for the audience.’
For ‘The List’ the Navy worked ‘with Executive Producer and Senior Writer for revision to script to include and demonstrate Navy Core Values of ship crew on liberty conducting port visit.’ This presumably refers to the behaviour of sailors on shore leave, a fairly frequent issue for the Navy both in Hollywood and in real life.
Other changes to NCIS episodes include a near-total rewrite of a story where a ‘Sailor is murdered due to his connection to an illegal immigration ring, in an effort to smuggle his sister into the United States.’ As a consequence of the Navy and DOD’s feedback the script was changed so that, ‘Sailor is now shown to be a model Sailor.’
Sexual relationships within the military are also a consistent concern for the entertainment offices, as I explored as part of my in-depth study of how the Pentagon uses Hollywood to cover up its sex crime problem. This led to changes on an episode that, ‘depicts Navy officer and sailor with a “budding” romantic relationship. Writing team has agreed to change MC character to a retired Navy civilian at request of’ the Navy and DOD.’
Similarly on another episode, ‘Depiction of Army General being investigated for an inappropriate relationship with a Navy LT and leaking “classified” documents… Showrunners have assured that the script will reflect the changes discussed to eliminate/minimize negative depictions.’ A later entry on the same episode says, ‘Concept draft has incorporated changes including the General/LT relationship changed to innocent family friend mentorship.’
Another recurring issue is the depiction of current and former service members suffering from mental illness. As I mentioned in my podcast and article on the issue, yet another episode of NCIS was rewritten because of this. ‘Character who commits suicide changed from active duty Chief to civilian working at a low level job on the Navy base after… discussion with show runner/writers.’
One final example, and this one doesn’t come from the military but from the White House. The episode titled ‘Homefront’ starred Michelle Obama, and included dialogue ‘highlighting the merits of [the] Joining Forces program’.
When Entertainment Liaison Offices Go Bad
The relationship between the military and NCIS has not always been smooth sailing. The Marine Corps were not happy with an episode of NCIS: LA where the agents have to recover a stolen nuclear weapon, ‘Villians learn of the location of the weapon by bribing a Marine Intelligence Officer at Camp Pendleton. Though the role is minor, producers continue to use Marines as an easy target for a corruptible federal agency.’ No assistance was provided for this episode.
In early 2014 it looked like the relationship might suffer serious damage, after one episode where an Army soldier is accused of committing a war crime after he shoots an unarmed Afghan villager. The Army were asked to review the script and they rejected it, and the Navy reports highlighted how:
Throughout the episode, numerous inter-service rivalry comments are made by the LT and his assigned defense lawyer giving the audience the impression of conflict between the US Army and USMC.
The producers ‘had no intention of changing the script and have rescinded initial DoD support request’ and the Navy report goes on:
Note to leadership. This conflict unresolved could become problematic for future DoD support when NCIS producers do not request access, ships, or personnel, we have no real leverage to insist on script/thematic changes that meet our goals. With the governance being an OSD PAA on a per-episode basis, the only option we may have is to review NCIS’ continued use of name, logo, DC location footage, etc.
This was not the only problem that came up in the first few months of 2014. Just a few weeks later a double episode titled Crescent City was broadcast, designed to backdoor the NCIS: New Orleans spin-off. It introduced some new characters who work with some of our existing cast to solve a crime in Louisiana. Despite the Navy being in discussions about the spin-off for months beforehand, they were not happy with the Crescent City episodes.
After the first of the two-parter had been broadcast a Navy report says:
NCIS Crescent City New Orleans possible spin-off part one episode aired Tuesday night. Part two next week. New NCIS agents act like thugs. Real NCIS PAO, USMC, USN and DoD are all expressing concern and desire for discussion with the network on red lines and thematics necessary to maintain DoD support.
The following week an update recorded how:
Phil Strub talked to creative producers about Navy, NCIS and USMC concerns on future direction of NCIS New Orleans spin-off.
So what upset the military? Two scenes seem to have provoked the ‘thugs’ comment. The first is when NCIS Agent Scott Bakula (a.k.a. Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap) is interrogating a lobbyist.
On the one hand I can see why the depiction of an NCIS agent hurling a man across the bonnet of a car was a problem for the Navy. On the other hand, I’m sure NCIS agents have done a lot worse. The other obviously problematic scene is similar, where another of the new characters is interrogating a Petty Officer.
This time, the federal agent slams a suspect’s head into a table in response to him flirting with her. This reminds me of the pilot episode of the reboot of Hawaii Five-0, a similar show to NCIS in almost every respect. In the pilot one of McGarrett’s colleagues beats and tortures a suspect with a large ashtray, but the DOD objected. The scene was rewritten so that the colleague hits the guy once, then stops and apologises as soon as McGarrett walks in. Likewise on Man of Steel the DOD effectively removed a scene where the FBI and heavily armed SWAT police raid the Daily Planet. We could also throw in the changes on Deep Impact, where president Morgan Freeman’s speeches were rewritten to remove references to shooting looters.
All these changes have less to do with the military depiction and much more to do with the image of the security state, whether we’re talking cops, FBI, NCIS or troops on the streets. The post-9/11 security state has generated a lot of opposition from civil libertarians and constitutionalists, among others. The DOD’s entertainment liaison offices don’t just protect the military, but the whole gamut of the security state too. My recent work on the DEA adds to this, and may explain (just for example) why the DEA never tap Jesse’s phone in Breaking Bad.
The Crescent City episode was especially embarrassing for the Navy because they had tentatively organised for the Secretary of the Navy to make a cameo appearance in the pilot episode for the spin-off series. This was cancelled due to CBS having a policy of no guest appearances in pilots.
Following the discussion with Phil Strub on ‘red lines’ there were several more meetings between the producers and entertainment liaison officers to discuss the military depiction and other aspects of the new series. They even invited the new writers, researchers and producers on an ‘indoctrination day’ and like with the LA spin-off they pressured them to write in military characters. They reviewed the outlines for the early episodes of the Crescent City spin-off as soon as they were written, and even attended the ‘stakeholder meeting’ at CBS that summer.
Following the meeting a report notes:
Overall productive meeting discussing introduction of a recurring military character, support from regional bases and tenant commands, implementation of script recommendations provided by NAVINFOWEST and recommendation to hire USN veteran as location military technical advisor.
A year later, with the new series up and running the Secretary of the Navy paid a visit to the NCIS studio. The reports state:
Purpose of visit was for Sec. Mabus to present “The Department of the Navy, Distinguished Public Service Award” to Mr. Gary Glasberg [Executive Producer] on behalf of the Producers, Cast and Crew for completing over 282 episodes in the last 13 years which helped educate viewers on Navy culture and depicted our Navy Core Values.
It seems that despite the falling out over the Crescent City pilot episode that everything was smoothed over, the Navy regained their position of control over the NCIS universe, and this was a little way to say ‘thank you for submitting to our will’.
How NCIS helps cover-up the Pentagon’s sex crime problem
Where this military-NCIS relationship gets particularly ugly is when it comes to the military’s sex crime problem. As I revealed in a recent article, the Navy actually approached the producers and pitched them the idea of doing an episode based around sexual assault in the military. This is quite unusual, though not unique, for the entertainment liaison offices to ask producers to specifically write something.
A dozen episodes later and they delivered a script to the Navy for their consideration.
Episode #244 and 255 review in progress. Episode #255 thematic depicts a service member(s) sexual assault. NAVINFOWEST Project Officer will be forwarded to SAPRO for consultation and input recommendation to ensure victim advocacy and reporting are accurately depicted in the script.
SAPRO is the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, who reviewed the script to see if it met their needs. It didn’t, so they told the producers to write in scenes that showed other sailors standing up for the victim of a sexual assault.
Series producers/writers successfully incorporated script rewrites that demonstrated Sailors helping Sailors seeking assistance and reporting sexual assaults. Current episode air date in April TBD will align with the DoD’s Sexual Awareness month.
Later reports note the audience for the episode – 16.73 million viewers – and how it was re-run several months later when the series was on hiatus. They commissioned this episode and then demanded it be rewritten to precisely suit their demands, and when you watch the result, it really shows.
Around a year later a similar episode focusing on sexual harassment was developed by the NCIS producers, with a much more realistic depiction. So on September 2nd 2015 the heads of the Navy’s Hollywood office put a stop to that:
Director and Deputy held C/C with series Executive Producer and episode Writer IRT episode #288 “Viral” depicting negative portrayal of women integration on SSNs, sexual harassment by numerous crewmembers and ineffective leadership by the command Triad.
The following day:
Executive Producer called to notify us that script #288 revision was in progress based on feedback provided. Episode #288 will now take place on a BBC and will depict Sailor by-stander intervention, perpetrator adjudication, and timely and effective engagement by the Triad.
Just like with military mental illness, the DOD will only support a production depicting military sex crimes if it focuses on how they are dealing with the problem. Even though all the statistics, anecdotal evidence and sworn testimony says the military systemically fail to deal with this problem, in the NCIS universe all is well.
NCIS is Military Propaganda
I should emphasise how unusual this relationship is, and that most military-supported TV shows are not made with such close cooperation. There is very much a scale running from minimal courtesy support through to near-total co-production.
Where Don Bellisario isn’t being especially honest in this interview is when he flops around on the question of script rewrites, because the documents I’ve talked about today show that he regularly compromises his scripts in order to maintain military support. This even happens on episodes where there is no support except for the script review process, and on the odd occasion his writers step out of line and write an episode the military doesn’t like, the Pentagon lets him know.
What this demonstrates is that there is very little difference between the influence wielded by the Pentagon on Hollywood in the WW2, Cold War and post-Cold War periods. While some would defend propaganda in wartime, the reality is that the Pentagon always thinks of itself as being at war. In the post-9/11 period when we’ve been constantly at war this propaganda apparatus behaves just like it did in WW2. If anything, it’s even more sophisticated now.