For over a decade the CBS action drama NCIS has enjoyed a very close working relationship with the US military, which allows the entertainment liaison offices to review every script, even for episodes where they provide no support. This unusual situation nearly fell apart in early 2014 when the producers refused to rewrite an episode the DOD didn’t like, and then produced a pilot for the New Orleans spin-off which the DOD really didn’t like.
When I was looking through the Navy entertainment liaison office reports I noticed that in season 11 of NCIS they backdoored the New Orleans spin-off, introducing the new characters and having them team up with the existing characters to solve a crime. But the Navy, Marine Corps and DOD were all deeply unhappy with the two-part episode, commenting after the first part had broadcast:
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.
Phil Strub got in touch with the producers to warn them that if the producers continued in this direction that the DOD would have to review their ongoing support to the series.
NCIS Crescent City New Orleans possible spin-off part two episode aired Tuesday night. Awaiting CBS ratings decision. Phil Strub talked to creative producers about Navy, NCIS and USMC concerns of future direction on NCIS New Orleans spin-off.
So I put in a FOIA request with the Navy for communications between their entertainment liaison office and Phil Strub’s office at the DOD, discussing problems with NCIS at this time. They released a handful of emails showing that the concerns began way before the spin-off episode had aired.
The emails between Strub and Captain Russell Coons (then head of the Navy’s Hollywood office, now at CENTCOM) show that they were concerned about the spin-off months before they were shown on TV. In February 2014 an NCIS photographer asked permission to go aboard the USS Makin Island to take some pictures for set dressing purposes. Coons responded:
Please notify ██████ that any DOD support request for the NCIS TV series needs to he socialized through NAVINFOWEST first and not go VFR to the unit directly. His current request is not approved.
There are many moving parts with the new spin off that are not covered by the standing PAA and what might appear like a simple request can quickly get out of control.
Coons alerted Strub to the issue, saying:
The end runs are starting.
It appears that the Navy and DOD were expecting the NCIS series producers to try to find ways around the Production Assistance Agreement, and that because the New Orleans spin-off wasn’t covered by that contract that they would exploit the ambiguity. Strub responded to Coons’ email about the ‘end runs’, commenting:
Shame on them, they know better. Or maybe he’s a new guy, operating without ██████ knowledge?
Is this the test ship at Port Hueneme? And the Crescent City spin-off? I wondered if they‘d ask for some support for Part I.
A couple of weeks before the spin-off aired there was another problem, with a regular NCIS episode titled ‘Shooter’. It depicted a soldier in Afghanistan committing a war crime so the Army, Navy and Marines all agreed it was unsupportable. The Navy reports note:
Episode #256 review complete and not supportable. USA and USMC depictions inaccurate and poor representation. Episode thematic depicts a LT (US Army) committing a revenge killing of an unarmed Afghan villager. The murder is captured by a SSgt (USMC) COMCAM photographer assigned to the RC-West ITF. Throughout the episode, numerous inter-service rivalry comments are made by the LT and his assigned defense lawyer (Major, US Army), giving the audience the impression of conflict between the US Army and USMC. This concern was addressed by Mr. Strub (OSD, PA) and US. Army/USMC Directors with NCIS Exec Producers. As of 19Mar, series producers had no intention of changing the script and have rescinded initial DoD support request to film at the Point Mugu training site.
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
The emails also discussed this episode, with Lt Col Curtis Hill, director of the Marine Corps Hollywood office, writing to Strub, saying:
Have you had a chance to read this outline? I have shared with the Army office out here. Both the Marine Corps and the Army have concerns with this episode.
There are so many aspects of this that are wrong: Marine[s] are combat correspondents, not photojournalists; Marines do not do investigative journalism; a Lieutenant under investigation and/or pending charges would not remain in charge of a platoon; there are no Army infantry units at the base named in the script; there are no billets for Marine Corps Public Affairs at Navy Yard (the SSgt would not be assigned there)…not to mention, why are they dragging the US Army into this.
This show continues to push the bounds of “providing a benefit to the Department of Defense” and this script and the possible spin-off in New Orleans only further demonstrates this fact.
Curtis L. Hill
United States Marine Corps
USMC Motion Picture and TV Liaison Office
Strub wrote back, echoing the concerns but somewhat defending the NCIS producers because they’d recently written an episode that had been specifically requested by the Navy:
Curtis, yes, I read the outline. I share your concerns, and, as usual, have no recommendations other than asking you and the Army for alternatives that will eliminate or at least ameliorate these concerns. And while I too am rolling my eyes over the potential spin-off, NCIS did take one of the Navy’s big request[s], and created a whole episode essentially about the Navy’s efforts to combat sexual assault.
It seems that, following the meeting after the spin-off episodes had aired, the relationship was restored. The Navy and DOD were intimately involved in developing the New Orleans spin-off series and a year later, with the new series on the air, the Navy’s reports record how the Secretary of the Navy paid a visit to the NCIS set:
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.
I do wonder what the producers would make of these internal emails and their disparaging comments, though no doubt whatever objections they had would be overruled by their desire to keep working with the US military on NCIS.