Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Network Upfront Preview - CBS: Next Year's Champion

CBS's Scorpion was a decent hit this year, but it won't return the network to the top

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 2014-15 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 before upfronts hit.  Next up is the network which will almost certainly be the 2015-16 champion: CBS

I made be getting a bit ahead of myself crowning CBS as next year’s champion in May, but it isn’t too hard to subtract the ratings NBC got for the Super Bowl this year, add them to CBS’s ratings average (since they will air the Super Bowl next year), and realize that CBS would be sitting about two-tenths of a point ahead of NBC at this point if they had the rights to the previous Super Bowl.  Absent a schedule-consuming megahit like American Idol, sports have begun to rule the broadcast landscape and both NBC and CBS have taken advantage of the shift.  For that reason, they’re going to finish 2015 in first and second place, respectively, and look to hold those positions for the foreseeable future.

All is not clear skies ahead for CBS, though.  The network that I once lauded for its pure, top-to-bottom strength has developed serious flaws throughout its schedule.  Fridays are a disaster (though this is an industry-wide issue) and Sundays haven’t been much better.  Throw in quickly diminishing 9:00pm ratings and more than half the network’s fall schedule pulled below-average ratings, something unheard of even two years ago. 

Exacerbating CBS’s issues is the failure of its shows (The Big Bang Theory excepted) to repeat respectably.  As recently as three seasons ago, the network was able to pull repeat ratings that other networks would kill for.  Just picking one random Monday night in January 2012, CBS’s lineup looked like this:

How I Met Your Mother – 2.5 rating
2 Broke Girls – 2.7
Two and a Half Men – 3.0
Mike & Molly – 2.3
Hawaii Five-0 – 1.7

And those were for repeats.  Compare that to CBS’s best repeat night this season, in December, when NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans topped out at a 1.4.  Certainly, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to the eye network, but more than any other in recent years, CBS has relied on decently-performing repeats to buoy its schedule.  Last year, the network aired fifty-seven percent more repeat hours than ABC (NBC’s and Fox’s numbers were even lower).  But as those numbers decline, CBS will need to start airing more original programming and will need to figure out how to boost those shows’ ratings.

The Question
How does CBS fix Friday and Sunday?  In recent years, the network has been willing to settle for low-rated, syndicated or near-syndication dramas.  While this might be a sound corporate strategy, especially as they air more and more in-house productions, it’s not having a great impact on their overall numbers.  CBS renewed four of its five fall shows from those nights, none of which averaged better than a 1.4 rating.  Maybe they’re fine with this.  After all, there’s money in cranking out twenty-two episodes of a CBS-produced procedural that has a syndication deal guaranteeing $1m to $1.5m per episode.  But it's not helping their current numbers at all.

The Numbers –
CBS is cruising for a second-place finish in Live+Same Day ratings, currently averaging a 1.78 rating and likely to finish around a 1.75, about an eight percent drop from 2014-15.  We’ve talked about the network’s problems on Friday and Sunday nights, but they did have a few successes this year.  Scorpion and NCIS: New Orleans both debuted to big numbers and settled in as solid successes.  The Big Bang Theory, while no longer the monster it once was, is still the second-highest-rated show on network television and was successfully able to build both Mom (up ten percent year-over-year) and The Odd Couple.  CBS still has a lot of hits, which is maybe why it can afford to give so much time over to low-rated syndication babies.

The Schedule –
Monday –
7:00pm – The Big Bang Theory (4.32 average rating)/The Millers (1.68) – 2 Broke Girls (2.05)/Mike & Molly (2.07)
8:00pm – Scorpion (2.30)
9:00pm – NCIS: Los Angeles (1.62)

The trouble with projecting CBS’s schedule is that I always predict them to stay mostly steady and they always end up making big moves.  For example, I never would have predicted they would pull comedies from the 8:00 Monday hour last year, but here we are and it looks to have worked.  Scorpion came out of the gate hot before cooling off a bit in the spring, but it was a solid, reliable player that, when paired with NCIS:LA, really helped boost the night.  Some strange, early season shuffling* probably hurt The Millers a bit, but once 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly settled in, this turned into CBS’s strongest top-to-bottom night.  For next year, I don’t expect this lineup to change at all.

* Mom was originally slated to follow The Big Bang Theory but just days before the season began, CBS announced that the show would shift to Thursdays instead, once the NFL games finished and that, following three weeks of Big Bang repeats, The Millers would move to Mondays.  The move worked for Mom, not so much for The Millers.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – NCIS (2.44)
8:00pm – NCIS: New Orleans (2.10)
9:00pm – Person of Interest (1.55)

NCIS and its newest spinoff did pretty much exactly what was expected of them.  The big surprise here was how much Person of Interest dropped throughout the season, ultimately hitting a 1.1 rating for its finale.  CBS’s renewal announcements were delayed several days apparently because the network was in tense negotiations with Warner Bros. over the future of the show.  Current rumors have Person of Interest getting renewed for only thirteen episodes, indicating a possible planned final season, a la The Mentalist this past season.  That likely means a trip to Friday or Sunday or maybe Wednesday night as a bridge program between Survivor seasons.  The only other question then is whether a new drama slots in at 9:00 or NCIS: New Orleans shifts down to make room for a new show at 8:00.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – Survivor (2.30) – The Mentalist (1.34) – Survivor (2.30)
8:00pm – Criminal Minds (2.14)
9:00pm – Stalker (1.52) – CSI: Cyber(1.44)

This spring lineup could come back entirely intact, though Cyber has taken a recent downturn in the ratings.  I’m a little surprised that Criminal Minds has never found its way to 9:00 but, if CBS hasn’t done it yet, I don’t see why they would now.  It’s also, frankly, amazing that Survivor manages to remain a top-five show on the network even after sixteen years.

Thursday –
7:00pm – Thursday Night Football (4.58) – The Big Bang Theory (4.32)/Mom (2.28) – The Big Bang Theory (4.32)/The Odd Couple (2.25)
8:00pm – Thursday Night Football (4.58) – Two and a Half Men (2.26)/The McCarthys (1.50)/Mom (2.28)
9:00pm – Thursday Night Football (4.58) – Elementary (1.29)

Thursday Night Football wasn’t the smash hit that CBS was likely hoping for, mostly thanks to terrible matchups and a surprising number of blowouts, but it still gave big numbers and allowed the network to cut down on repeats.  I’m assuming they aren’t planning to run regularly schedule Big Bang repeats in the fall as they did this spring but, honestly, the ratings weren’t that bad.  I expect this schedule to stay much the same with the possible exception of Elementary making room for a different show.  But, really, there’s nowhere else to put it except possibly on Sundays at 9:00.

Friday –
7:00pm – The Amazing Race (1.18) – Undercover Boss (1.39) – The Amazing Race (1.18)
8:00pm – Hawaii Five-0 (1.25)
9:00pm – Blue Bloods (1.27)

CBS renewed this entire lineup which makes me fairly certain that will it return relatively intact.  It’s not great and the ratings are likely to decline further, but it’s making CBS money on an across-the-board low ratings night so more power to them, I guess.

Sunday –
7:00pm – Madame Secretary (1.41)
8:00pm – The Good Wife (1.21)
9:00pm – CSI (1.31) – Battle Creek (0.79)

CSI has been more or less canceled, though plans are apparently being made for some kind of final movie or shortened season, so we may not yet have seen its end.  Frankly, this seems like a perfect spot to move Elementary in order to get in its fourth season needed for syndication since that’s all that Friday and Sunday nights seem to be good for anymore.  It seems like such a waste of an NFL lead-in, especially compared to how Fox handles its Sunday nights but, for whatever reason, CBS has been willing to more or less punt Sunday nights in recent years rather than try to shake anything up, so I can’t really predict anything else.

CBS almost certainly has the 2015-16 ratings title in the bag already in May.  But even if the Super Bowl can prevent an overall ratings decline, CBS is going to be seeing some very ugly ratings next spring if they don’t figure out their scheduling now.  I know that there are a lot of hidden factors that go into the financials of a company as vertically integrated as this, but those financials don’t make the numbers look any better to the public eye.  Then again, I guess that’s how television financials work now.

Tyler J 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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