CBS is huge. It might not be the number-one network on TV right now, but it's almost impossible to imagine it ever slipping to number three. It doesn't air many shows TV fans on the internet get too excited about — save for The Good Wife — but it doesn't have to. CBS has everybody else on lockdown.
That could make for a boring story, but the flip side of CBS's dominance is that the network always seems a little angry about how it gets too little respect. During both an early morning press conference announcing its 2015 fall schedule and its later upfront presentation designed to sell advertisers on said schedule, president and CEO of CBS Corporation Les Moonves discussed at length the prevalent "myths" he believes exist about CBS, like the idea that it's only a network for old people or that it's dominated by older shows and has trouble launching new hits.
In the case of the latter, CBS had a very good 2014-'15 season, renewing five freshman series (though some of them are merely time slot hits — shows that succeed because they air after a hit program). But in the case of the former, CBS's constant strategy of producing shows that attract lots and lots of viewers — at least some of whom will be young — is essentially what will always keep it out of the media spotlight. Making shows your parents watch is profitable, but stability isn't exactly sexy.
If you want to see CBS's fall schedule and new-show trailers, check those out here. Otherwise, here are five thoughts on what the network is up to.
1) It's good to be the king
There is essentially nothing CBS could do to lose the viewership trophy in the 2015-'16 TV season. It already wins among all viewers, and though CBS relinquished the crown for young viewers (ages 18 to 49) in 2014-'15, losing it to NBC by a margin of just 124,000 viewers, that was with NBC having the Super Bowl. As Moonves pointed out, CBS has the Super Bowl in 2016. Thus, it would take a catastrophe for the network to not be an easy number one in both categories.
And catastrophe is just what the CBS schedule is built to avoid. The network rarely makes huge changes to what it does, perfectly content to rely on sure-bet programming while moving around little things here and there. Indeed, its 2015-'16 fall lineup features the biggest changes to a CBS fall lineup in quite a while. Only the network's Friday nights are completely intact — and the new schedule still pretty much feels like the 2014-'15 schedule, at least at first glance. CBS is very no muss, no fuss.
For the most part, CBS's aim seems to be to figure out what to do with its
10 pm hours, which it's changing up on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (Person of Interest, the current Tuesday occupant and the network's best current show, is headed to midseason, while CSI: Cyber, the Wednesday occupant, is shifting to Sundays.) The network is also rearranging its Thursday comedy lineup, taking a chance on Mom at 9 pm, where the (very good) sitcom will hopefully succeed.
In short, CBS is strong and stable. But if you inspect its schedule closely enough, you'll find it's also making some interesting — and substantial — changes.
2) CBS is abandoning Monday-night comedy
The biggest modification is the complete abandonment of Monday-night comedy, a tradition on the network since the 1949-'50 TV season (yes, you read that correctly). The last time CBS didn't air at least one comedy on Monday night was the 1948-'49 season, which was mostly dominated by local programming anyway.
CBS eliminated its 9 pm Monday comedy block — which had existed in its "two comedies over one hour" form since the 1950s — at the start of the 2014-'15 season, to make room for the action drama Scorpion. And as of November 2015, the 8 pm block (which has existed since Scarecrow and Mrs. King aired there during the 1985-'86 season, 30 years ago) will be gone as well, replaced by the network's new Supergirl series.
In and of itself, there's nothing particularly remarkable about this. CBS still broadcasts a full evening of comedy on Thursdays, and it has a bunch of new comedies waiting in the wings, in case anything absolutely tanks this fall. But the network owes its current success to crime dramas, and that makes it difficult for new comedies to jockey for airtime.
Monday — a traditionally successful night for the network and a lower-pressure night than Thursday, where networks try to air their strongest programming — was always there for any CBS comedy in need of a tryout. Now it won't be, and that's too bad, if only because watching long-running TV traditions end is never fun.
3) CBS isn't quite the LA Lakers anymore — but it's close
In the summer of 2014, I suggested that CBS was the Los Angeles Lakers of networks — filled with old, expensive players who, nonetheless, still performed so well that the network couldn't cut them.
Moonves was adamant during the aforementioned press conference that this is no longer the case. CBS is now a young network, he insisted, having renewed five first-season shows and trimmed older series like the original CSI to make room for the five new shows that pepper its fall schedule.
That's all well and good, but the network is still heavily reliant on the NCIS franchise, Survivor, and Criminal Minds, all of which are old — and in some cases, downright elderly — in TV terms. Moonves pointed out that if you look at total viewership, NCIS: New Orleans was the top new show of the 2014-'15 season, not Empire, but advertisers care less about total viewership than they do about young viewership, where NCIS: New Orleans fares considerably worse. Plus NCIS: New Orleans does well because it's on after its parent show. Is there any way it could achieve raging success elsewhere on the schedule? NCIS: Los Angeles certainly hasn't since moving to Mondays.
The problem with being CBS is that the core CBS audience is so big, it's hard to ignore. But it also trends older than other networks' audiences, and it likes what it likes, which is cop dramas and detective shows. When the network trends away from that (as with the various medical dramas it has tried to launch since the mid-2000s), it struggles. The 2015-'16 schedule is filled with attempts to not broadcast more cop dramas — and it might be as successful as the last time CBS tried this approach, in the fall of 2007. (Hint: CBS did not do very well that season.)
4) CBS really believes you want to watch TV shows named after movies you barely remember
There is literally no reason for the network to greenlight a TV version of that 2011 Bradley Cooper movie Limitless, which was a minor hit at the box office, but come on, do you recall anything about it?
CBS also has a TV version of Rush Hour queued up for midseason, which is a slightly better idea than a Limitless series, but only just. It isn't quite on the same level of strange decision-making as NBC ordering a sequel to Coach, but it's close.
Of course, all bets are off if Limitless becomes a massive hit, as it very well could, given its plum time slot and catchy premise.
But CBS owns the entirety of the Paramount television library. If it really wants to produce something with a recognizable name (and keep current CSI and future CSI: Cyber star Ted Danson on the company payroll), maybe it should just bring back Cheers. (That's a horrible idea, CBS. Do not bring back Cheers.)
5) Don't tell anybody, but CBS wants to be hip so, so desperately
Why else would the network be launching a superhero show (Supergirl) that aims to blend the genre with something straight out of a generic romantic comedy, circa 1995?
And why else would it sidestep its typical sitcom formula with its two new comedies, a structurally ambitious show that tells four short stories per episode and a high-concept show where Jane Lynch plays a bad-mannered guardian angel?
Similarly, why would it make these shows more cinematic in presentation, instead of more stage-like? CBS has enjoyed much more success with the latter — particularly with current champion The Big Bang Theory — but it keeps trying to break its own mold.
CBS's problem has always been that it doesn't just want to be the number-one network. It wants to be beloved by all. But in trying to do so, it can't help but feel like it's trying just a little too hard.
The fact of the matter is that CBS has a lot of solid-to-really good shows. Even its worst programs rarely scrape the bottom of the barrel, because it has a wheelhouse, and it knows exactly how to stay within that wheelhouse. But that approach isn't very exciting, so the network keeps trying to break out of that zone, with occasionally disastrous results.
Every so often, CBS convinces itself that it needs to be the coolest kid on the block, and it ends up feeling like your parents trying to repeat pop culture catchphrases they only half understand. For better or worse, 2015 feels like one of those years.