Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Network Upfront Preview: CBS - Never Content

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are here, which means the 2013-14 television season is quickly coming to a close.  I’ll probably have a season wrap-up post at the end of May, but I wanted to take a quick look at each network and its shows (and maybe make a few renewal/cancelation predictions) before upfronts hit.  Previously I discussed NBC, Fox, ABC. Next up is the most stable network on television: CBS.

[Editor’s Note: The CBS schedule was released after this was written but shortly before it was posted. The schedule preview will be up later tonight.]

I refuse to make schedule predictions for CBS because every year it seems like the same thing happens: I predict stability because the network inevitably has the fewest problems to fix and then they go and make some kind of major change.  In 2010, I predicted stability and they moved Survivor, which had been occupying the Thursday at 7:00 timeslot for an entire decade, to Wednesday to make room for The Big Bang Theory and a new comedy block.  In 2012, I predicted stability and they moved their second highest-rated comedy behind their highest-rated comedy in an attempt to lock down the Thursday night audience.  Then, last year, I again predicted stability and was again made to look foolish when CBS moved Person of Interest to Tuesday nights to make room for a fourth hour of comedy.  I am out of the CBS predicting game.  They’re bound to do something completely unexpected.  I might lay out some options, but the only thing I will confidently predict is that The Big Bang Theory will not be on the shelf until November, when Thursday Night Football ends.

The Questions
The biggest question CBS has to answer is how they’re going to work around Thursday Night Football.  There’s no way that the network is going to allow its number one show to ride the bench for six weeks at the beginning of the season, so I have to think that The Big Bang Theory makes its way to Mondays, at least for a while.  But after that, who knows?  There are rumors (owing mostly to CBS’s many drama pickups and the surprise renewal of The Mentalist) that the network plans to pare its comedy offerings to three hours per week but does that mean Elementary will stay put or will they try new dramas on Thursday after football ends?  There’s also the possibility that, with only 30 weeks to fill instead of 36, we might get something close to uninterrupted seasons of television, if CBS would dare greenlight 26-28 episode seasons.

The other bit I want to know is what CBS plans to do with 9:00pm on every night.  Their final hour has been dropping significantly this year, to the point where CBS’s 9:00 hour is only barely beating ABC’s, despite currently standing a full half-point ahead in the overall same-day ratings.  Across every night the 9:00 ratings are down.  Moving Person of Interest to Tuesday nights has helped boost that one timeslot’s ratings, but at the cost of twenty percent of the show’s ratings from last year.  Both NBC and ABC have been able to find 9:00 hits in recent years with Scandal and The Blacklist, so it’s not impossible.  But CBS just can’t seem to keep people watching at that hour.

The Numbers
CBS is going to easily finish in second place in the Live+Same Day ratings this season and is in a neck-and-neck fight with Fox for the Live+7 runner-up title.  The network’s greatest strength is its across the board depth, as it will finish first in scripted comedy ratings and second in scripted drama.  To give you an idea of how deep the roster is, CBS canceled Friends with Better Lives and Bad Teacher, both of which would have been the highest-rated live-action comedies on Fox and NBC this year.  It’s very difficult to predict what Thursday Night Football will do on CBS both because its previous ratings were on a cable channel that was typically reserved for a higher tier and because the Thursday night games are generally not as high profile as those on Sunday Nights.  CBS won’t pull the same numbers that NBC does with Sunday Night Football, but they could be high enough to lock CBS in second place again in 2015 (even without the Winter Olympics having the Super Bowl is likely enough to guarantee NBC a second straight first-place finish).

The Schedule (Titles in BOLD have already been renewed for next season; titles in strikethrough have already been canceled)
2013-14 Schedule –
Monday –
7:00pm – How I Met Your Mother (3.28 average rating)/We Are Men (1.90) – How I Met Your Mother (3.28)/Two Broke Girls (2.55) – Two Broke Girls (2.55)/Friends With Better Lives (2.00)
8:00pm – 2 Broke Girls (2.55)/Mom (2.10) – Mike and Molly (2.22)/Mom (2.10)
9:00pm – Hostages (1.20) – Intelligence (1.33)

CBS’s first foray into timeslot sharing did not go as well as they would have liked.  You can blame the timeslot if you’d like, but the more likely explanation is that Hostages and Intelligence just weren’t very good shows.  Intelligence, at least, got a huge sampling airing after an episode of NCIS but couldn’t carry that audience over to Monday nights.  I don’t know that CBS abandons the experiment, but I hope they don’t use this year’s failures as an excuse to stop trying short-run programming.

On the comedy side of the night, 2 Broke Girls turned out not to be the anchor CBS hoped it would be.  After cratering briefly in the fall, the show picked back up once it was moved behind HIMYM earlier in the night.  Two months ago, I would have put money on The Big Bang Theory leading into How I Met Your Dad at 7:00 to open next season but, for some reason, there has been some stalling on CBS’s pickup of HIMYD.  Despite renewing, canceling, or picking up every other series already and the announcement of CBS’s schedule barely more than twelve hours away, HIMYD is still in limbo.  My bet may still be won, but it’s looking less likely by the hour.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – NCIS (2.84)
8:00pm – NCIS: LA (2.44)
9:00pm – Person of Interest (1.99)

This is the exact night that’s made me stop predicting CBS schedules.  Old me would say nothing is going to change here.  These are three of the four highest-rated dramas on the network (Criminal Minds being the other) and this was almost exactly the outcome CBS was looking for when they moved Person of Interest here last spring.  But the pickup of another NCIS spinoff, NCIS: New Orleans, throws a kink in those plans.  There are some rumors that CBS will use New Orleans as a bridge show for NCIS, but the mother ship’s reruns do just fine.  They could move Person of Interest to Mondays or back to Thursdays and finally bring about the long threatened all-NCIS night.  Or they could move NCIS: LA to a new night to survive on its own and give New Orleans the cushy lead-in.  There are a half-dozen different ways this could go, and I have no idea which they’ll path they’ll take.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – Survivor (2.43)
8:00pm – Criminal Minds (2.49)
9:00pm – CSI (1.91)

The same thing applies to Wednesday night that did to Tuesday.  There’s nothing wrong here, so why try to fix what’s already working.  But then CBS greenlit CSI: Cyber.  Will they use it as a limited, bridge series for CSI?  Or will they move Criminal Minds to put the two CSIs together?  Or does Survivor get the boot?  I have no idea how any of this will play out.

Thursday –
7:00pm – The Big Bang Theory (5.13)/The Millers (2.72)
8:00pm – The Crazy Ones (2.11)/Two and a Half Men (2.29) – Two and a Half Men (2.29)/The Crazy Ones (2.11) – Two and a Half Men (2.29)/Bad Teacher (2.10)
9:00pm – Elementary (1.77)

I was extremely surprised that CBS won the bidding war for Thursday Night Football because if any network doesn’t need help on Thursday nights, it’s CBS.  But the NFL is a tempting mistress who can seduce anyone.  And Thursday is the most profitable night on television.  So The Big Bang Theory, broadcast television’s top scripted series (behind only Sunday Night Football overall) is moving…somewhere…at least temporarily.  It will be taking with it one of CBS’s strongest nights.  I know that this move was as much about keeping another network from getting into the NFL game as it was about strengthening CBS’s lineup, but I’m a little worried about what will happen when CBS keeps one of its strongest lineups off the air until November. 

Should CBS, as rumors suggest, decide to cut back on their comedy schedule, this is probably where we’ll see it, given that the network only just added its second comedy hour here last season.

Friday –
7:00pm – Undercover Boss (1.47) – Unforgettable (0.93)
8:00pm – Hawaii Five-0 (1.45)
9:00pm – Blue Bloods (1.40)

The move to Friday nights had Hawaii Five-0 fans rending garments last May, but this actually seems to have been the best move to ensure its long-term survival.  The ratings it drew on Friday nights were near where it was on Monday nights a year ago and the pairing with Blue Bloods means CBS is the most-watched network every week (even if total viewers aren’t as valuable as the 18-49 demo).  This entire lineup was renewed early and I would bet it comes back largely intact, though I could see Undercover Boss being held for midseason, depending on how the Thursday night shakeup plays out.

Sunday –
7:00pm – The Amazing Race (1.90)
8:00pm – The Good Wife (1.46)
9:00pm – The Mentalist (1.48)

Sundays are easily the most troubling night for CBS.  Thanks to the NFL in the fall and golf in the spring, the evening shows are often pushed back as much as an hour every couple of weeks.  This leads to The Mentalist regularly airing outside of primetime and an inconsistency in scheduling that is unparalleled by any other network.  At the same time, the ratings for the night's dramas have been dropping steadily, to the point that The Good Wife and The Mentalist are going to only barely beat Friday night shows Hawaii Five-0 and Blue Bloods this year.  Prior to the last minute renewal of The Mentalist, I thought that Elementary would fit nicely behind The Good Wife, but I have no idea now whether CBS will change anything on this night.

CBS will be making some changes for next year.  They have to if only to accommodate football.  The only problem is I don’t know where they will be.  Tuesday and Wednesday are strong enough to not need any tinkering but, at the same time, Friday and Sunday are so weak that it seems inadvisable to try and launch anything new there.  It remains to be seen if Thursday Night Football will be the juggernaut that its Sunday night companion is, but I expect to see CBS as possibly the only network claiming year-to-year growth come next May.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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