Just a few years ago, it looked as though shows in which a group of characters confront and neatly resolve a crime or a court case in a single episode, a staple of TV since its earliest days, might not make the leap to the streaming future.
In the 2010s, as Netflix was ascendant, several hugely successful procedurals were shown the door. NBC unceremoniously canceled “Law & Order.” CBS canceled “CSI,” the popular police show, as well as three “CSI” spinoffs. Many television executives felt that a story told over the course of a whole season, like “Big Little Lies” or “House of Cards,” would be better for Netflix-style binge watching.
As it turns out, those old-fashioned procedurals aren’t just surviving, they are thriving, in a new medium.
The back libraries of network series like “Criminal Minds” (2005-2020), “NCIS” (2003 to present), “The Blacklist” (2013 to present) and “Bones” (2005-2017) are all among the most streamed shows since 2020, according to Nielsen’s streaming ranker, which totals up series by the number of minutes watched.
In fact, “Criminal Minds” was the most-watched show in streaming in 2021, beating out shows considered cultural phenomena like “Squid Game,” “The Great British Baking Show” and “Bridgerton.” In 2022, “NCIS” was more watched than “Ozark” and the film “Encanto.”
And “Law & Order”? It restarted last year.
Part of the reason the shows rank so high is because there are hundreds of episodes for viewers to watch. “Criminal Minds,” for example, has more than 300 episodes, and it appears lots of viewers automatically play to the next episode, over and over again. Many of the most popular shows with a story arc that lasts a season or more have far fewer episodes. “Squid Game” has nine.
Part of the appeal is that the procedurals have a low barrier of entry. They are, to a fault, uncomplicated — if viewers zone out or scroll through their phones, they won’t be missing much; nor is there a need for an online recap or podcast to help decode intricate plot points.
David E. Kelley, the veteran producer of series like “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice,” and now the creator of a show for Peacock, “The Calling,” said that is a big draw.
“It only makes sense that a viewer is going to say: ‘I want to watch something. I don’t have time to watch 100 hours of it, or even 10 hours, but I want to commit to three, four hours to it. I want to feel like I had a whole meal,’” he said.
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He continued: “You feel you’ve had the whole totality at least of the storytelling experience in three or four episodes, and then you can choose to go back to that restaurant or not for another meal.”
Going back to the 1950s with “Dragnet,” or the 1980s and ’90s with “Murder: She Wrote” or the 2000s with “Law & Order: SVU,” the procedural has survived technological shifts before.
Steven Binder, an executive producer of “NCIS,” said he believed that older procedurals and other network-style dramas had a “universal appeal” that allowed them to thrive in streaming libraries.
“When I look at other shows in history that have been as popular as ‘NCIS,’ back to ‘Gunsmoke’ or ‘Star Trek,’ you’ve got characters on the show working together to solve problems,” he said. “Our show isn’t about the fighting between the characters.”
He pointed out that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” had a concept: no conflict among the Starfleet crew.
“It was groundbreaking back in the time when he said, ‘No, we’re not going to have our characters fighting each other — they’re all a team, and the conflict is going to come externally,’” he said. “That’s what our show is: It’s competent, capable people working together to solve problems. I think people have always liked seeing that. They’re heroes.”
George Cheeks, the president of CBS since 2020, who had been a top NBC executive before that, noticed that “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” were performing well on Netflix.
As a network executive, Mr. Cheeks said, people often asked him why he wasn’t following the mid-2010s Netflix model where he could spend $10 million or more per episode for premium serialized dramas.
“I would always politely remind them,” he said, “that these shows that you don’t seem to think have value any more are demonstrating value both on broadcast TV and streaming.”
The most popular shows on Paramount+, the home of popular streaming series like “Survivor” and “1923,” are dominated by procedurals, with five series in its top 10 most watched list over the past few months, according to internal Paramount+ data, which was reviewed by The New York Times.
Series like “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “Blue Bloods,” “FBI” and “SEAL Team” are all in the top 10. Likewise, on free streaming services like Pluto, procedurals perform very strongly.
“There’s a beginning, middle and end, and you don’t have to have watched the prior episode to enjoy the current episode,” Tom Ryan, a co-founder of Pluto TV and the president of streaming at Paramount, said on The Town podcast in October. “Lots of the content on Pluto that performs so well is just like that.”
It also helps that the format travels well outside the United States. Mr. Cheeks said that “CSI,” “NCIS” and “FBI” have high interest in international markets “in a way that streaming originals just don’t.”
When Mr. Cheeks saw that “Criminal Minds” was performing well on streaming, he urged restarting it for Paramount+. “Criminal Minds: Evolution” debuted in November, two years after the series was canceled on CBS. It will continue its weekly run on Paramount+ on Jan. 12.
And while the show has been slightly reimagined, the core story line remains.
“When you turn on ‘Criminal Minds,’ you know we’re going to take you to the dark, we are going to scare you — and then we’re going to save you,” said Erica Messer, an executive producer of “Criminal Minds: Evolution” who worked on the original iteration. “A lot has changed over the course of the 15-plus years the show’s been on. But that hasn’t changed.
“I think there’s a comfort in knowing that I’m going to get really scared,” she continued, “but I’m going to solve the mystery alongside these heroes.”