Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014-15 Network Television Preview - CBS: The Next Contender

I'm predicting big things for CBS's new drama, "Scorpion"

Last year I predicted CBS to repeat as television’s ratings champion.  In hindsight, I should have known better.  With the Winter Olympics, The Voice, and Sunday Night Football on NBC it was virtually impossible for CBS to finish the season with the highest same-day ratings.  Still, with how poorly Fox performed, especially in the spring, CBS should have been able to manage second place, even in spite of Fox airing the Super Bowl and primetime NFC Championship Game.  But they struggled to find viewers, especially among dramas.  The big offseason move – Person of Interest to Tuesday nights to open up a fourth comedy hour – mostly failed and the network continued to shed viewers at 10:00.  Worse still, CBS’s Sunday lineup completely fell off the map without a cushy NFL football lead-in, with ratings for The Good Wife and The Mentalist falling below even the network’s Friday offerings in the spring.

Thursday Night Football changes all of that.  It doesn’t have the matchups that NBC’s Sunday Night Football has, won’t pull in the same ratings, and will only air for six weeks, but it will give a decent boost to the non-Big Bang Theory Thursday night ratings and will eliminate about a week’s worth of repeats throughout the year.  Just ask NBC how valuable that can be.  I’m predicting a two-horse race this year between NBC and CBS, but the latter definitely has some ground to make up. 

CBS once was defined by its depth, able to trot out show after show with solid ratings, even if it didn’t have any blockbusters like American Idol or Sunday Night Football.  But depth has increasingly become an issue for the network in recent years and will likely be exacerbated in 2014-15 with the loss of How I Met Your Mother.  The problem is particularly noticeable at 10:00, where not a single show managed to rate above the network average.  10:00 has become an increasing problem for all three networks that schedule there, but ABC and NBC have both been able to develop big 10:00 hits while CBS has seen its numbers slowly erode.  They’ve tried moving established 9:00 successes like Person of Interest in an effort to boost the hour with modest success, but none have shown the ability to be a runaway hit like Scandal or The Blacklist.  CBS is making another of those moves, with NCIS: Los Angeles coming over from Tuesday nights hoping to fill the hole at 10:00 on Mondays, but the best chance for a home run in the late hour is likely Stalker.  It’s getting horrid reviews, but it is right on brand with what the network has in Criminal Minds and will likely earn similar, respectable ratings.

The other disaster area is Sunday nights, which CBS is hoping to shore up with Tea Leoni’s Madame Secretary and CSI.  The network is clearly hoping that sandwiching critical darling The Good Wife in-between two higher-rated shows will help lift the entire night.  We’ll have to see how successful they’ll be.

I used to consider CBS to be the network without any holes in its schedule.  It was always the one canceling shows whose ratings other networks would kill to have.  But that’s starting to change.  CBS still has the strongest comedy lineup, but neither of its two new dramas last year (Hostages and Intelligence) drew ratings that would have kept them alive on other networks and both Friday and Sunday are right on par (or a little behind) with what the other networks are putting on.  These holes aren’t yet critical, thanks to strong ratings throughout the rest of the schedule.  But with ABC and NBC down, CBS has a chance to stamp itself as the dominant network on television, especially next year when it will again have the Super Bowl.  If they want to get there, however, they need to figure out how to fix 10:00 and Sundays.

Let’s take a look at the night-by-night schedule (new shows in Bold).

8:00pm – (The Big Bang Theory/2 Broke Girls [October 27th])/Mom
9:00pm – Scorpion
10:00pm – NCIS: Los Angeles

Monday is an almost entirely brand new night this year.  With the NFL consuming the first six Thursdays of the season, CBS needed a home for The Big Bang Theory, which it certainly wasn’t going to leave on the bench for a month-and-a-half, so it returns to Mondays, this time in the lead-off spot.  It will likely continue to draw incredible ratings and might just be able to give a nice boost to Mom. 

For the first time in more than fifty years, CBS won’t be airing sitcoms at 9:00, instead hoping to launch Scorpion, a Big Bang-meets-NCIS drama that I’m predicting will be a massive hit, and the highest-rated new show this season.  It’s received fabulous marketing and will get a one-hour Big Bang lead-in for its premiere.  Closing out the night will be CBS’s second attempt to shore up a 10:00 timeslot with a former 9:00 show.  The plan worked reasonably well last year, with Person of Interest pulling modest, but better ratings than its predecessors in the Tuesday at 10:00 timeslot, but the show lost viewers overall from its previous Thursday airings.  NCIS: LA will likely lose viewers as well, but if it can stay in that 1.8-2.2 range that Person of Interest held for most of last year, CBS will probably consider that a success. 

8:00pm – NCIS
9:00pm – NCIS: New Orleans
10:00pm – Person of Interest

The only change on Tuesdays is the slotting in of a new NCIS spinoff in place of an old one.  With so few changes, it stands to reason that ratings will likely be the same.  The big thing to watch will be whether the NCIS mothership continues its pattern of erosion, as it's fallen by double-digit percentages each of the last two seasons.

Wednesday –
8:00pm – Survivor
9:00pm – Criminal Minds
10:00pm - Stalker

As much as I would like another outcome, I’m resigned to Stalker being a modest hit, likely holding down most of the still impressive Criminal Minds audience.  As much as I’ve criticized CBS’s 10:00 performance, the truth is that they obviously realize their own issues and have a pretty solid plan to combat them.  They tested the “9:00 to 10:00” waters with Person of Interest last year and this year are doubling down with NCIS: LA and Stalker, which might as well be a spinoff of Criminal Minds.  So far, it’s been a solid plan.

Thursday –
8:00pm – Thursday Night Football/(The Big Bang Theory/The Millers [October 23rd])
9:00pm – Two and a Half Men/The McCarthys (October 23rd)
10:00pm – Elementary (October 23rd)

It will shock nobody to say that Thursday Night Football will pull in perfectly acceptable viewership numbers.  I should caution, however, those who think will succeed on the level of Sunday Night Football.  The caliber of games for Thursday night is much lower than on Sunday (just witness last week’s debacle with the Falcons dismantling the Buccaneers).  The ratings are typically lower as well. 

Things don’t really get interesting until late October, when football goes away and the normal schedule returns.  CBS is marshalling its resources elsewhere this fall, so Thursday remains largely unchanged.  I expect the ratings to be likewise.  I do think, however, that The McCarthys is a little more on brand than was The Crazy Ones, so it may have a little more success.

Friday –
8:00pm – The Amazing Race
9:00pm – Hawaii Five-0
10:00pm – Blue Bloods

Five-0 and Blue Bloods make a really good pairing on Friday nights.  They don’t necessarily draw monster ratings, but they do well enough to win their timeslots or finish second most weeks.  I honestly don’t know what effect The Amazing Race will have on the night, though I expect it’s not much.  I view this less as a negative move for TAR and more as a move to protect The Good Wife and Sunday nights, which the Race is no longer capable of doing.

Sunday –
8:00pm – Madame Secretary
9:00pm – The Good Wife
10:00pm – CSI

Sundays have been cratering for CBS in recent years, so it’s no surprise that the network is trying something new here: The Amazing Race and The Mentalist departing to make way for new drama Madame Secretary and veteran CSI.  The first two hours of this trio launched this past Sunday to decidedly mixed results.  Secretary drew a 2.0 in the preliminary ratings while The Good Wife bombed to a 1.3.  That number could come up in the final ratings, but it’s still well below expectations.  The big question is going to be if The Good Wife’s low ratings affect CSI and, if CSI comes back low too, how long CBS allows that to continue.

I’m being harsh on CBS, but the truth is that I’m still predicting them to finish, at minimum, in second place with a decent chance for first.  It just feels odd to see them with so many problem spots in the schedule because, for so many years, they had the most consistent schedule, beaten out in the ratings race only because Fox had the juggernaut that is American Idol.  I have to say, though, CBS’s fall schedule impresses me.  They’ve recognized their weaknesses and seem to be patching them well.  I predict good things for the eye network in 2014-15.

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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