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How CBS is like the Los Angeles Lakers

The cast of The Big Bang Theory, one of TV's biggest shows
The cast of The Big Bang Theory, one of TV's biggest shows
CBS

"Picking winners today isn't as simple as looking at the overnight ratings," said Nina Tassler, the chairman of CBS Entertainment, early in her executive session at the TCA summer press tour. It was the sort of statement that's become typical at executive sessions, but it's also the sort of thing Tassler would never have said even a couple of years ago.

There's been a growing sense among the broadcast networks that they need to shift their business strategies to survive, but CBS has long been the holdout, the network most devoted to broadcasting the sorts of shows Americans watch, even if TV fans don't buzz endlessly about them. And yet here, at this summer's press tour, was Tassler talking like her counterparts at Fox, NBC, and ABC have for a few years. Networks are going to have to program year-round. Networks are going to have to learn to rely on more than overnight ratings. Everybody's going to be just like cable in a few years anyway.

To be fair to Tassler, CBS has been drifting in this direction for a while. The network has made noise about getting advertisers to pay attention to DVR numbers and the total audience for some of its lower-rated shows (like The Good Wife) since last summer's press tour. But if anything, Tassler's session this morning suggested that dropping out of first place (and all the way to third) in the advertiser-beloved 18-49-year-old demographic has lit a fire underneath CBS, a fire that seems to be driving it right back to its core audience, an audience it hopes hasn't shrunk too much.

CBS still might be number one in total viewers, and it still might have NCIS (which Tassler described frequently as a global franchise worth a billion dollars), but it can no longer assume it will win the ratings war by default. Enough viewers have started watching their TV on their DVRs and via streaming services that CBS, too, needs to figure out a way forward.

A bad year

This shift likely would have been more gradual if CBS weren't coming off a really bad year. CBS fell 15 percent in the ratings in the 18-49-year-old demographic, by far the worst decline of any of the big four networks. (It still won the total viewers crown, but that mostly suggested its audience was aging.) The network bet big on comedy, expanding to two two-hour comedy blocs on Monday and Thursday. It didn't really pay off.

2 Broke Girls, which had already been trending downward in the ratings, started hemorrhaging viewers. The Robin Williams vehicle The Crazy Ones debuted strong, but then lost viewers. (It was canceled at the end of the season. 2 Broke Girls lives to be crass another day, but it no longer looks like the comedy that will keep CBS going.)

With only two successful comedies — The Big Bang Theory (one of TV's biggest shows) and How I Met Your Mother (which ended its run in March) — CBS found itself falling on hard times on both Mondays and Thursdays. And it was also unable to develop any significant, new drama hits. Even Elementary, which debuted in the fall of 2012 and looked like it might be the network's new big drama, has softened considerably by the end of its second season.

CBS is still a network with many of TV's biggest shows, including NCIS, Person of Interest, and Big Bang. But it's also a network that's sorely lacking in young hits, the lifeblood of any TV network. To put it in sports team terms, CBS is in danger of becoming the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers: stuck with a bunch of aging, expensive players that could fall down at any minute and leave the whole franchise reeling.

Thus, CBS's moves heading into this fall have mostly been defensive ones. The network outbid all others to get the Thursday night NFL package, a set of games that won't even run the whole season but will almost certainly do well in the ratings, even if the games are crummy. It broke apart the Monday night comedy bloc to air an action drama named Scorpion at 9, where it has aired comedies since the 1950s. It picked up another spinoff of NCIS and another spinoff of CSI (which has the hilariously 1997 name of CSI: Cyber). Yet tellingly, the only potential spinoff the network passed on was a comedy spinoff, the spinoff of HIMYM called How I Met Your Dad, which would have brought indie film queen Greta Gerwig to American televisions on a weekly basis.

This is typical. Every so often, CBS gets slightly too far from its base of traditional comedies and crime dramas, and then the network is inevitably punished with a year when a lot of its new shows fail. It inevitably retrenches, scurrying back to what has worked. So the safe money is to assume that all of these aggressive moves toward playing defense will pay off. NBC's surge into first is built on any number of shaky pieces that could collapse at any time (though it will have the 2015 Super Bowl), and ABC's strategy of appealing to the nation's diversity is essentially untested. (Fox seems likely to ride out a couple of rough seasons.) It seems entirely possible that CBS will jump back into first in the fall and ride out the season there.

And yet the difference this time, the difference that Tassler acknowledges, is that television has changed. And playing defense may not work as well in the current landscape.

The future of TV

CBS's past decade of extreme success has been predicated on the belief that television simply hasn't changed all that much from what it always was. Sure, major TV fans love to talk about shows like Mad Men or Community, but outside of the occasional Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, the shows that TV fans obsess over rarely have much overlap with the shows America actually likes to watch. And that's where CBS dominates. Where other networks chase the small but vocal audience that tweets about and discusses and criticizes TV endlessly, CBS programs to the solid middle. Its shows are rarely drop-dead awful, but they also rarely transcend their TV trappings. (There are exceptions to both rules, though. The network's Criminal Minds and upcoming Stalker are both the worst kind of violent emptiness, while its Good Wife and Person of Interest are among TV's best shows.)

The problem has always been that programming to the safe, reliable middle will stop working as a strategy at some point, simply because the safe, reliable middle is shrinking a little bit every year. That's been obvious in a world where political polarization grows with every year, but it's finally starting to creep into television, too, where you might be one of a handful of people to watch a show, but you are likely really passionate about that show and, therefore, possible to monetize on some level to the network that airs that show.

CBS has gleefully resisted this growing culture of televised niches, and it could easily rise up above them yet again. But in Tassler's continued insistence that if you just look at all of the numbers, CBS is as big as ever, there was the feeling of a paradigm shift.

This was apparent, in particular, when a couple of reporters pushed Tassler on what's turned into one of the tour's major themes: diversity. The network's upcoming fall shows feature exactly one person of color in a lead role (Maggie Q on Stalker), and their supporting ranks aren't exactly swimming with non-white actors either (though at least NCIS: New Orleans is employing the tremendous CCH Pounder). In past tours, this would have resulted in one or two questions that would have received a boilerplate answer about how CBS is always looking for the best actor for a role or something, but this time around, the conversation grew more heated.

Tassler pointed to the network's new comedy The McCarthys as a sign of diversity, as the lead character there is gay (even if it's ultimately about a loud, fractious white family). That, she said, was a big step for CBS, a big difference from anything the network had done in the past. Reporters pointed to Extant, which, yes, has Halle Berry in the lead role but has been relegated to the slower summer season and has a largely white ensemble cast (not even in the part of Berry's robot son, who could have conceivably been of any race at all).

The tension stems from something very real: CBS might be making moves toward whatever the future of television looks like, but in true CBS fashion, it's going very slowly, very tentatively. ABC can dive wholesale into programming shows that reflect the nation's diversity, Fox can try ditching pilot season entirely, and NBC can program an aggressive year-round schedule that has far more flops than hits for one simple reason: none of those networks had as much to lose as CBS. CBS essentially has to take its time moving forward, lest it alienate that mushy middle somehow.

So CBS retrenches and plays defense and does what it's always done. It will probably work. But if it doesn't, CBS won't just be in some brave new world. All of television, stuck without a bland touchstone, might be, too.