Network Upfronts Extravaganza – ‘CBS’ Preview

EDIT: CBS has officially revealed its upfront schedule. For all the details, head to:

Cultural Learnings’ Analysis of CBS’ 2007/2008 Fall Schedule.

So, you’re CBS. You’re the #1 network for the first half of the year until FOX rolls out American Idol, right? You have multiple high-performing hours of drama each and every week, and seem to have little problem launching new comedies on Monday nights. So, when it comes to the upfronts, what exactly are you looking for? CBS faces this problem every year, and the result is usually an attempt to engage younger viewers while in reality continuing their streak of repetitive programming. However, as their pilot season last year demonstrates, this is not always an easy task, and despite their ratings success CBS has a lot of catching up to do.

2006/2007 Pilot Season

CBS is certainly not a loser in this category, at least not to the degree of The CW or any other failed network (NBC comes to mind, but we’ll get to that complicated scenario tomorrow). The network saw one drama (Shark, pictured)and one comedy arrive as unmitigated success stories this year, which is definitely more than we can say for The CW. However, the problem is that the rest of their lineup failed to catch the attention of viewers, and when you have such a highly rated scheduled those failures don’t get much time to shine.

The first thing we need to discuss the two success stories, each of which were successful thanks to high-powered lead-ins. On Mondays, Rules of Engagement premiered after Two & a Half Men to high ratings and, get this, kept them up. After going on a break for King of Queens to return for its final (also highly-rated) episodes, the show still appears to be a shoo-in for renewal thanks to that performance.

On Thursdays, meanwhile, CSI remained a powerful force even against Grey’s Anatomy, but more importantly the network was able to find a compatible program in the aforementioned Shark, the James Woods legal procedural. It had a high-profile star, it’s basically ripping off House but in legal form, and it seemed to engage the CSI audience quite well and is a definite renewal.

But, then we have the abject failures, which leads us to the dead zone of Tuesday Night at 10pm. This should have been a successful timeslot for the network, considering they opened in it with Smith, a high-profile quasi-serial/quasi-procedural drama starring Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, and a whole lot of things blowing up. However, for whatever reason, the show proved incapable of doing anything for the network even with The Unit as an adequate lead-in. The show was cancelled after only a few episodes due to its high production costs, and the Stanley Tucci drama 3 Lbs. was rushed into the slot in November.

This was, once again, a complete and utter failure for the network. In this case, the show was literally ripping off House (Doctor with bad bedside manner), and people just didn’t connect with it. The ironic thing is that there must have been something good in the show, since Stanley Tucci is now playing a doctor on ER, but the show failed right out of the gate for the network. Since that point, the network hasn’t even bothered with new original series’, opting instead to fill the slot which reruns of their procedurals which perform just as well.

Although not exactly failures, the networks two other pilots which made it to series are as “on the bubble” as such a show can be. The Class started out the year in a decent fashion, but it suffers from high expectations and a high-performing comedy lineup for the network. It never lived up to its “The Next Friends!” hype, and although no one in their right mind would expect it to, Network executives are rarely in their right mind. It ended its season extremely early, and its chances don’t look good.

And yet, perhaps the most interesting is Jericho, one of many shows which started out the season well and has hit record lows at the end of the season. The apocalyptic drama opened well, which was surprising considering it isn’t CBS’ kind of show, but it has shed viewers on a weekly basis ever since. Its serial storyline was really slow in the beginning, but then picked up at the end of the season, so it has its creative side going for it…but creative doesn’t cut it at CBS. They could easily get better ratings than Jericho’s at the end of the season with a CSI rerun, and they’re willing to make that decision. Jericho sits on the bubble awaiting its fate, knowing that Horatio could be taking off his sunglasses in their time period.

On the whole, the network saw two success stories, two on the bubble shows, and enough abject failures for the entire pilot season to be considered a decidedly mixed bag. The shows which should have appealed to younger viewers even failed immediately or waned over time, and the network just plugs in CSI reruns as if that’s going to help their future demographic situation.

The Returning Shows

Let’s get this out of the way:; CBS’ returning shows are performing well. CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY (Although it’s the most vulnerable over time), Criminal Minds, NCIS, The Unit, Without a Trace, Cold Case, Ghost Whisperer, Numbers, Two and a Half Men…and that’s it. There are five other shows, however, which need to be considered more closely.

First, two of their Monday comedies remain in question despite their apparent quality. Julia-Louis Dreyfus may have beaten the Seinfeld curse by winning an Emmy and having The New Adventures of Old Christine renewed, but after losing the plush lead-out from Two and a Half Men the show has seen a steady ratings decline. I expect the show to be renewed, thanks to its pedigree, but it certainly makes it less secure.

Even less secure, however, is its lead-in, How I Met Your Mother. The show has received kudos from critics (Although no Emmy attention, even for the fantastic Neil Patrick Harris), but its ratings have never emerged from its mid-level performance. It was about even with newcomer The Class, which is itself unlikely to be renewed, and only outperformed it by a small margin. It’s a successful comedy based on any other network’s standards, but for CBS it pales in comparison to the shows which follow it.

On the drama side of things, Close to Home is the most likely show to get the axe when CBS presents its final schedule. While Ghost Whisperer has its charms (See: Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “assets”) and has star power going for it, Close to Home has neither of those two things. It is a show that has suffered from a complete and total lack of hype, and its ratings have remained consistent if unimpressive. CBS has enough successful dramas to be able to cancel one which just isn’t getting enough buzz to justify its existence, so Close to Home is likely dead in the water.

And, these last two are shows that are unlikely to be cancelled, but their ratings declines need to be considered. Survivor and The Amazing Race each represent a legacy of reality television which is now over seven years old, and each show also represents a legacy which is slowly deteriorating. Both shows continue to be successful in key demos and total viewers, and both will be on the schedule next year, but there is a rumour that each might be seeing themselves pared back. The Amazing Race may be taking a break until February, and there are rumours it could end up in Survivor’s timeslot as it also starts to become a once-a-year phenomenon. Either way, both shows no longer feel like “event programming”, which is what made reality TV the success it is. CBS now needs to decide whether or not they can regain that with a scheduling shift.

The 2007/2008 Pilots

Full List of Pilots: Variety – Pilot Watch – CBS

CBS has currently been the most tight-lipped out of all of the networks based on which pilots they will be picking up (As you’ll see tomorrow, NBC and ABC basically ruined the surprise entirely). The only news thus far is a leaked schedule which may or may not be true [Zap2it – ‘Reports…’]. I’m choosing to mostly ignore this, but only because I think that it’s not a great schedule for CBS as far as I am concerned. Either way, CBS provides a lot of room for speculation. They’re an interesting case because they have little need for pilots, and yet will certainly be on the lookout to attempt to change their image. In my view, their drama pilots fall into two distinct categories: The Clichéd CBS Drama and The Off-the-Wall Concept Drama.

First, in the clichéd category, we’ve got your usual cop dramas, your legal dramas, and your family dramas (Although these are usually more ABC’s bag, they’re still clichéd by definition). Currently looking good is an untitled pilot starring Jimmy Smits (Pictured) about a “multi-generational Latin American family in the rum business.” It reads exactly like ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, really, but I think that it has the potential with the network and the starpower of Jimmy Smits behind it. It’s rumoured to be receiving the post-CSI slot, which is an interesting choice that might just work.

IMDB – Untitled Jimmy Smits Drama

Next up we have what was only a pilot presentation, but yet I think it fits directly in with that they’ve got going. It’s an “ensemble drama about a team of public defenders,” which is sort of like Shark but not exactly like Shark. I’d say this was a problem except that there’s how many CSIs, and how many crime shows out there? It has a decent cast (Janeae Garofolo and Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a concept which fits with their brand, and could be another breakout hit for the network.

They then have two cop shows to choose from: one (Protect and Serve) is about Dean Cain and other cops in LA on and off the job, and the other (The Man) is about L.L. Cool J (Pictured) as an undercover cop who develops a relationship with a young drug orphan. The first sounds more interesting and less clichéd to me personally, which means that the CBS-owned, Anthony Zuiker (CSI) produced, Drug Orphan drama is the more likely pickup. Oh, they also have something about a charming rogue (Stephen Dorff) in L.A. too that’s somewhat similar, but also directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), so it has potential.

IMDB – The Man

However, let’s get to the Off-the-Wall Concept Drama part. There’s one here that’s only off-the-wall because it’s on CBS, which is Swingtown. It’s about swingers in a 1970s community, which fascinates me because it’s totally not going to ever work on CBS. However, I include it here because it reminds of ‘Swing City’, which remains a classic Gob moment. I think it’s too off-the-wall and doesn’t really have a grounding with a CBS audience. Plus, really, the show should totally be on basic cable where it can be as raunchy as it wants to be. However, CBS has decided to pick it up anyways.

IMDB – Swingtown

However, there are three other projects which are more grounded in reality and yet have very strange concepts. The first of these is Babylon Fields, described as (I kid you not) a “zombie dramedy” starring Amber Tamblyn (Pictured, Joan of Arcadia). CBS is lacking in hour-long comic dramas, and with the success of Ugly Betty you have to believe that they’re looking for one. This would be a fine option for that purpose, with a good star and some shades of Buffy and other “hip” concepts in there.

IMDB – Babylon Fields

Somewhat less hip, but still somewhat interesting, is the Hugh Jackman-produced Viva Laughlin, about a family running a casino…and it’s a musical. Yes, that’s right, it’s a musical. No, I don’t know how this happened. And no, I’m still not entirely sure the show actually exists, but it actually has a decent shot at being picked up. If CBS wants something off-the-wall, a musical show is as good as it gets. I guess we’ll see with Hairspray this summer whether people are willing to re-engage the genre.

IMDB – Viva Laughlin

There’s also something about vampires and Demons, but I think Zombies are currently hipper than either Demons or Vampires, so they’re both cut.

On the comedy side of things, CBS isn’t looking for much new blood, although it may be considering expanding their comedy lineup to multiple nights.

The two most likely candidates to do so are Paul Reiser’s Atlanta and the Marisa Thomei vehicle The Rich Inner Life of Penelope Cloud.

Atlanta is about two people who meet at a funeral and keep running into one another, and stars Freddie Prinze Jr. It seems like a concept which CBS could get behind, and although its stars are young its pedigree (Creator Reiser, “Mad About You”) and concept are actually quite old. Plus, its pilot was directed by comedy guru Harold Ramis (Caddyshack).

IMDB – Atlanta

The Rich Inner Life of Penelope Cloud, meanwhile, is definitely an older-skewing concept, much along the lines of ABC’s Men in Trees this past season. It’s about a writer who turns their life around by switching to optimism from cynicism, and features Marisa Thomei in a rare TV role. It would be a good pairing for the New Adventures of Old Christine, I’d say, and has some starpower behind it.

IMDB – The Rich Inner Life of Penelope Cloud

However, should they plan to skew even younger, the most likely candidate is the Jason Biggs vehicle “I’m in Hell”, where a Wall Street maven (Biggs) is sentenced to hell on earth after passing away in a car accident. It’s got a decent concept, a recognizable star, and I just want to see David Cross (Tobias on Arrested Development) back on television.

The Bottom Line

CBS is in a tough position to have really defined themselves based on a certain type of show, a certain type of audience. It’s younger than it used to be, but CBS is still far too reliant on procedural dramas and needs to start breaking away from this. Jericho was a bit of a failure for them, which is really too bad, but I’d say that they need to try out some new concepts which could engage a different audience.

What CBS is looking for this pilot season is more of the same, although I have to hope that some planning for the future might be included. The failure of Law & Order is showing that procedurals can only perform so well over time, and CSI: NY is looking vulnerable on Wednesdays. As a result, CBS needs to make a move without resting on its laurels. Whether they will or not, well, we’ll have to see.

Projected Schedule

[Edit: Well, no need for this anymore! The final schedule has been revealed.]

Will CBS cancel more shows (Cold Case is probably the most vulnerable)? Will they pick up two comedies or more? And which shows will get midseason pickups (Viva Laughlin, Protect and Serve, Public Defenders, I’m in Hell, etc.)? We’ll have to wait until Wednesday, May 16th, to find out all the details.

2 Comments

Filed under Jericho, Survivor, Television, The Amazing Race, Upfronts

2 responses to “Network Upfronts Extravaganza – ‘CBS’ Preview

  1. merryann

    Jericho is unique and fascinating. Please give it another season! Perhaps ratings plunged because of the long hiatus??

  2. whatever happened to is it me, Freddie Prinze Jr., anyway?

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