How Discovery Channel Has Inspired Everyone from Oprah to the Creator of CSI

A true-crime show sparked the major TV franchise

CSI creator Anthony Zuiker can still remember the moment that watching Discovery changed his life—and his bank account—forever.

In August 1999, Zuiker was watching one of his favorite shows, The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science, Discovery's forensic docudrama series that aired from 1996 to 2005. That day's episode was about Linda Sobek, a model and former Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader who was killed by a photographer during a photo shoot in 1995.

"When they pulled that long, blond hair follicle out of the headrest of the passenger's side, it suggested that her hair was yanked out in some sort of a struggle," Zuiker recalled. "It was really at that defining moment that I understood that the body was the perfect specimen for crime solving. And that gave me the inspiration to go below the tape with a forensic police drama and take a forensic point of view."

That led him to create CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which debuted on CBS in 2000 and became one of TV's most lucrative and prolific franchises. The show has run for 15 seasons (its series finale airs Sept. 27) and generated three spinoffs: CSI: Miami; CSI: NY; and the most recent, CSI: Cyber.

Now Zuiker is giving back to the network that helped make him the Hollywood powerhouse he is today. He is appearing in Discovery's 30th anniversary campaign, in which several Discovery viewers talk about how the network's programming has inspired them (including Oprah Winfrey, who talks about the power of Planet Earth, and a boy who watched Shark Week and started a movement to ban shark finning in his state). The spots—which began rolling out in April—were all created by The Agency, Discovery's branded entertainment team. Zuiker's is the final one.

Adweek has an exclusive look at Zuiker's spot, which will beginning airing Monday night on Discovery and the company's other networks:

Sixteen years later, Discovery continues to have a special place in Zuiker's heart. "The great thing about this country is that a single idea can change anything," he said. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, in front of the right television set in front of the right television show. I knew that this town was about taking a simple idea and making it fresh, and if you did that and you executed a script at a very high level, you may have an opportunity to get something off the ground."

Zuiker shot the Discovery 30 spot, in which he says "Discovery has inspired me to be a master storyteller," in a rented Malibu home. "My job was just to be as honest as possible and hopefully give them something that's worth airing," he said of the shoot.

This is the second inspiration-themed campaign for Zuiker, who also participated in Avis' "What Drives You" campaign earlier this year, which featured several entrepreneurial success stories. 

Though New Detectives is no longer in production, Zuiker said he watches "anything on cable that's forensic-oriented. My entire life is dedicated to work and research, and new knowledge. What Discovery Channel provides me is a level of new knowledge and discovering things that I'm interested in, which always is science and the human body and crime, and those are the things I focus on when I watch their shows."

Right now, Zuiker's attention is squarely on wrapping up the show that Discovery helped inspire: Later this month, he'll start production on CSI's two-hour series finale. While the show's future seemed murky last season, Zuiker wasn't informed of its fate until shortly before CBS' upfront in May. "A finale is not something that is given too often in this business, so I'm relishing the opportunity," he said.

"It is a love letter to the fans," Zuiker said of the finale, which will bring back the show's original stars, William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger. "It's a complicated and rich case that brings all of our people back together, and has a very satisfactory conclusion that life will go on. And there's many, many takeaways that I think our audience will appreciate. If you are a devoted fan, you'll be very, very pleased emotionally how things wrap up. And if you're a new fan, I think you'll find yourself in for a two-hour ride."

Beyond the return of Petersen and Helgenberger, "we do fully expect most of the cast members back, but there will not be any cast members from Miami or New York," said Zuiker. "I've already written the finale, and it's a great pleasure to revisit these characters and have them come to life again."

Once he finishes the CSI finale, Zuiker will turn his focus back to CSI: Cyber, where he serves as executive producer, as well as the Broadway musical he's writing (an official announcement is still several months away, he said, but "that's a fairly big commitment"). He also hopes to one day partner with the network that inspired him 16 years ago. 

"I'm looking forward to, when my schedule frees up, figuring out a way that we could do bigger business together," he said. "I feel like Discovery is my home, in so many ways. It helped me create a foundation that changed the world, and all the things I have a level of interest in really reside on that channel. So I think there's a pretty bright future ahead."