<I>NCIS</i>' Michael Weatherly, Cote de Pablo and Mark Harmon. Inset: Shane Brennan NCIS' Michael Weatherly, Cote de Pablo and Mark Harmon. Inset: Shane Brennan

On Dec. 16, NCIS received an early Christmas present, and a most fantastic one at that — its largest audience ever, falling just shy of 20 million total viewers. With Season 6 resuming this Tuesday at 8 pm/ET, TVGuide.com saw a choice opportunity to chat up the CBS series' "very happy" show runner, Shane Brennan, who revealed his "plan" for when a certain singing show returns, pondered NCIS' "overnight success" and let slip a look at his plans for fall 2009.

TVGuide.com: You have got to be a happy man.
Shane Brennan: Oh, I'm always a happy man. I'm just very happy right now. 

TVGuide.com: Obviously as an executive producer, you always have the highest expectations for your show. But that said, when you get numbers like you've been getting all season, is a small part of you simply blown away?
Brennan: Yes. When you get rewarded with such great numbers, it is really gratifying. It's been a great Christmas present for everyone.

TVGuide.com: If you do hit 20 million viewers, will you buy everyone on the cast a steak dinner — or a new car?
Brennan: Yes, and the bill will go to [CBS president/CEO] Les Moonves. [Laughs] No, we're all just happy to see these numbers. That's our reward.

TVGuide.com: I spoke to Mr. Moonves at the CBS party a few weeks ago, and he is one happy clam. All of his shows are doing so well.
Brennan: Yeah, we now own Tuesday, which has always been a tough night. There's always been a good lead-in with NCIS, but now The Mentalist [which at last count had notched its own series high, 19.33 million viewers] is coming on the back of that.... Tuesday is very tough for everyone else. It will be interesting to see how American Idol shakes up things.

TVGuide.com: Do you have any counter-strategy for when Idol returns [starting Jan. 13]?
Brennan: My strategy has been the same since I took over the show last season: To make every episode as good as we can make it. I'm not a great believer in holding back stories, for instance. If I've got a good story, I'll go with it. And when we hit sweeps, we try extra hard. If you take that course, that every episode has to be the best you can do, you end up making, more often than not, episodes that people want to watch.

TVGuide.com: What makes your story even more impressive is that while some argue that a person has to watch The Mentalist live because it's not available online, NCIS does stream new episodes.
Brennan: That's true. People have the choice, too, of recording it, but NCIS seems to be a show that people want to watch live. They'll record everything else and they'll catch up on other shows online, but our show, they like to sit down and watch it. I think a lot of that has to do with that anticipation from week to week. I don't like making false promises to the audience, so if I say that something is going to be "the best story we've done about Ducky" or, "Don't miss the next episode because we're doing something special with Abby," I don't like the audience to get there and go, "Eh." You have a contract with the audience, and if you say, "This is going to be a great one" or, "You're going to be surprised" or, "You'll never guess the ending," you need to step up. If you consistently deliver on that, they love you and come back.

TVGuide.com: Do you find it funny to be talking about the show's "overnight success"?
Brennan: I find it interesting. At the beginning of last season, we had 14 million viewers; by the end, we had 17 million, and in fact in one episode we had 19 million viewers. A lot of what you're seeing now, the groundwork was laid for it last season. We came out of the gate running this season because we had built up so much momentum and so much anticipation. We had such a cliffhanger of a finale, with the team being split up, and that was a very good hook to bring the audience back. And then we very carefully laid out a not-to-be-missed arc with Agent Lee. A lot of planning goes into this.

TVGuide.com: So while some may have second-guessed your decision to break up the team, that was all very calculated — and perhaps one of the best storytelling twists you could have uncorked.
Brennan: Absolutely. In fact, right now I can tell you what the first episode of next season is. We've got a very exciting arc coming up towards the end of this season that sets it up.

TVGuide.com: You've already planned out the first episode of fall 2009?
Brennan: Yes — and it is a great episode. It's a literally stunning episode. To get there though, we have to take steps, and I can tell your right now we have a stunning closer for this season to get us there. Look, it's very interesting times. It's great that the audience has responded so well to the show. This is very much a show that when people come to it after missing the first seasons, they kick themselves, saying, "How come I wasn't watching this?!" The new viewers who come to us become instantly dedicated fans.

TVGuide.com: Before we go, I wanted to thank you for always being so generous in helping out with Mega Buzz reader questions. It's means a lot for our readers to have that interactivity with the boss of NCIS.
Brennan: As far as I'm concerned, that's part of what the show is. We're very user-friendly and we want people to watch the show, so if they've got questions, I'll do my very best to answer them without giving away too much. I'm always happy to talk to TVGuide.com.

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