Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.
Everything you need to know about television in the year 2016 you could learn by watching NBC's upfront presentation, immediately followed by CBS's presentation.
CBS and NBC are the top two networks on television, with CBS maintaining the edge. They achieved their respective statuses by programming solid, meat-and-potatoes TV — by which I mean lots of crime shows that might not be sexy for critics to write about but are watched by millions of people anyway.
Both networks even featured Hamilton parodies during their upfront presentations — with lyrics rewritten to be about advertising and a late-night comedian at the helm (Jimmy Fallon for NBC, and James Corden for CBS).
But where NBC's had the slight feel of being hastily assembled over the course of a weekend, CBS's was a production, complete with a videotaped introduction from Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda and a large group of backup performers, who at least maintained the musical's "people of color playing Founding Fathers" ethos, if Corden didn't (the comedian is even British, for God's sake).
CBS's Hamilton spoof was just better; classier, if you will. If nothing else, it was definitely bigger. And that underlines a lot of things about CBS — and how it's ultimately diametrically opposed to every other broadcast network.
Here are five reasons why.
1) Where NBC sees TV's dissolution on the horizon, CBS has faith in the old model
CBS is TV's No. 1 network (a statement it likes to repeat loudly and often). It's been No. 1 in total viewers for 13 of the past 14 years. It's been No. 1 among younger viewers for many of those years (though NBC won the crown in 2013-'14 and 2014-'15, before CBS wrested it back this season). And the only reason it doesn't completely run away with the title is basically that NBC has Sunday Night Football and The Voice, which keep it competitive.
But to look at a list of TV's most popular shows is to see a long list of CBS programs that have been on the air, conservatively, forever. The Big Bang Theory. NCIS. Even something like Criminal Minds. Survivor has been on since 2000 and still regularly wins its Wednesday night time period.
So it makes sense that CBS believes the broadcast television model isn't dead yet — it's the only network that has essentially no major trouble spots. Are there situations where it could maybe do a little better? Sure. But for the most part, third- and fourth-place networks ABC and Fox would beg for CBS's leftovers.
So where NBC spent its upfront presentation shilling a confusing mishmash of programming from across NBCUniversal's many networks — a strategy seemingly designed to get advertisers to stop thinking of shows as emerging from channels or lineups and start thinking of them as discrete units of entertainment — CBS spent most of its day emphasizing the strength of its lineup and how smart its fall schedule is.
At an early morning press breakfast, the network's Glenn Geller and Kelly Kahl mostly ragged on their competition, pausing only briefly to praise Grey's Anatomy's longevity on ABC. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a hit medical drama has been CBS's great white whale for more than a decade now.)
And make no mistake. CBS's fall schedule is, indeed, super smart. The network will be No. 1 again, barring catastrophe. But it's going to be No. 1 again because, after stepping outside its comfort zone in the 2015-'16 season, it's scuttling back into that shadow for 2016-'17.
And, sigh, it will almost certainly work.
2) CBS's fall schedule is incredibly conservative — in almost every sense of that word
First of all, this is a conservative schedule in terms of both the new shows CBS has ordered and how they fit into it. It has live studio audience sitcoms about families with cute kids. It has crime-solving procedurals. It has shows where, once you hear the premise — "it's about a psychologist who's an expert in understanding juries, and he's based on a young Dr. Phil" — you immediately think, "Hey, that's probably on CBS."
You want economic conservatism? The network is airing a show about how the American health care system is broken and the only thing that can save it is tech billionaires turning it into some sort of weird surveillance state (it was created by Friday Night Lights' Jason Katims, of all people). You want "faith, family, and the flag" social conservatism? CBS has plenty of offerings about red-blooded American guys who wonder what's up with their crazy kids.
And, hey, you want the sort of pining for an ill-defined version of the 1950s conservatism that has defined a lot of the recent Republican presidential primary? Every single one of CBS's new shows is headed up by a renegade maverick white dude with a gruff exterior and a heart of gold. (Remember: One of these shows is about young Dr. Phil.)
The network's only new woman-led series won't pop up until midseason, when its Katherine Heigl vehicle Doubt debuts, and even if Geller said CBS's fall lineup is its most diverse fall lineup in years, the diversity is largely in supporting parts.
I want to caution that there's nothing wrong with any of the above, necessarily. (Well, I'd love to see better diversity stats on TV, but it's clear that CBS only cares about diversity stats incidentally, if at all.) Making these sorts of TV shows is fine, and nobody makes them better than CBS does, as you'll note if you try to watch essentially any cop drama that's not on CBS.
The network got to where it is by aggressively targeting the sorts of people who still watch TV live (or at least on actual television sets instead of online), who tend to skew a little older, and who tend to be Middle American. And that means not rocking the boat all that much, either politically or artistically.
But good lord, the network aired Supergirl last fall. It seemed like it might be ready to try some new things. Instead, that show is headed for The CW, and the only superhero CBS has on its fall schedule is MacGyver.
3) CBS has a long-term strategy. Its long-term strategy is to keep being CBS.
If you look at, say, ABC, it's clear that the network's long-term strategy is to build a brand that associates its programming with a certain kind of soapy entertainment (inspired by the series of Shonda Rhimes) and with diverse casts that better resemble America's racial makeup than those of any other network.
The hope is that once broadcast TV circles the drain, "an ABC show" will mean something to people living in a diversifying America. Will it work? Who knows! But it's a strategy.
Sometimes it seems like CBS doesn't really have a long-term strategy, like it's all ride or die with its current audience, as if to say, "Who cares about the future? We're making money hand over fist right now."
But that's not precisely accurate. CBS has a long-term strategy; it just wants to be in control of its own destiny. Where NBC, ABC, and Fox joined forces to build Hulu, CBS opted to launch its very own streaming service, CBS All Access, for which it's developing exclusive programming (including a new Star Trek series and a Good Wife spinoff, both launching in 2017).
CBS doesn't want to license its programming's streaming rights to Netflix or anything like that. Like HBO, it wants to be Netflix when the great streaming revolution comes. And I would bet on the network succeeding at that goal.
4) CBS really doesn't like it when you say its viewers are old
Every year during the ABC upfront presentation, Jimmy Kimmel jokes about CBS's old viewers, and every year CBS spends much of its press conference the following day grousing about how it has a young audience, too.
And, yes, the "old viewers" stereotype is a bit unfair to CBS — after all, it's been No. 1 or No. 2 in the younger demographic for much of the past decade, in addition to clinching the 18- to 49-year-old title this season.
But there's also a reason the topic keeps coming up. CBS has always believed that if you pitch shows at the widest possible audience, you'll get enough 18- to 49-year-olds to make the effort worth your while.
Sometimes that approach yields a series that skews younger, like The Big Bang Theory, but sometimes it results in something like Blue Bloods, which is maybe the ultimate "Oh, I've never seen that, but my grandma loves it" show on TV right now. (It averaged 13.77 million viewers during the 2014-'15 season — the most recent one we have data for — and almost all of them were age 50 or older.)
What this really means is, "CBS feels like TV my parents would watch after I went to bed." And that's true. Its 18-to-49 programming usually skews toward the back half of that demographic, and it's never going to be the country's No. 1 network among 18- to 34-year-olds. But older viewers — the parents and otherwise exhausted of the world — watch more TV than young'uns do, so CBS can handle a few insults.
5) CBS is just really, really good at what it does
It's galling to see how blithely CBS brushes off, say, diversity concerns, because for as much as I might not like NCIS: New Orleans, I absolutely understand why it's on the schedule and what purpose it serves in CBS's arsenal. This is a TV network put together by smart people who are relentlessly on brand.
But CBS's stability and sameness of programming also means that every time the network deviates even slightly from its mission statement — TV for Middle America, presented without too much fuss — it gets an itchy trigger finger.
Though the network's inability to make Supergirl stick is its most recent off-brand failure, its recent history contains a handful of instances where it tried to launch a serialized drama or a single-camera sitcom or any other sort of show that wasn't in the CBS wheelhouse, and it failed, then retreated back to what it knew how to do.
This is infuriating in some ways, but it's also hard not to admire just a little bit. If the collapse of television happens tomorrow, there are only two networks I'd bet on surviving the apocalypse: HBO and CBS. Everything else is uncertain.
And when you're a constant of the universe, you get to make your own rules — no matter how much it bugs everybody else.