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CBS is remarkably defensive for being America’s most-watched network

The network’s fall schedule embraces both the network’s stability and its total panic.

Young Sheldon
You like The Big Bang Theory? Here it is in younger form!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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.

Way back in the gray mists of 2015, I wrote at length about how CBS might have a lot of shows that skew toward older viewers, but its strategy of putting the “broad” in “broadcast” (and thus attracting large total audiences) meant it might slip to second place among younger viewers, but it was hard to imagine it ever falling to third.

Well, about that...

CBS did end up in third this season, if only thanks to the huge fluke of Fox airing both the Super Bowl and a World Series that was ultimately won by the Chicago Cubs. If the World Series had lasted, say, six games instead of seven, or if the Super Bowl were on another network, CBS would probably be in a comfortable second place behind NBC. But those flukes happened, and CBS finds itself in the weird position of being America’s most-watched network, except among the younger viewers advertisers care about most.

“Most-watched” is technically true. No network has more viewers than CBS — and 67 percent of those viewers are watching the network live.

But, uh, the people who still watch live TV tilt toward the older end of the age spectrum, and without major events (even the Grammys struggled slightly in the ratings this year), CBS’s reliance on massively watched scripted shows with solid but unspectacular demo ratings became more apparent.

Which is to say that CBS will return to second place next year — NBC has the Super Bowl and the Olympics, which should make it unbeatable — barring something strange. But the network feels a little less dominant than its nine straight years of being the most-watched network on TV would suggest. How will it react to this uncertain time in its life cycle? Would you believe I have some thoughts on that?

1) CBS isn’t panicking

CBS quietly picked up eight new shows for the 2017-’18 TV season, which feels like a lot for the normally staid network (though it’s actually picked up quite a few new shows in each of the past several development cycles). But what’s more notable is how many new shows the network is putting on in the fall. Fully six of the eight new series — three comedies and three dramas — will debut somewhere in the September through early November corridor. That’s very un-CBS-like. The network typically likes to minimize the number of shows it launches in fall and then save other new shows for midseason, when it can use them to patch up weak points.

But CBS didn’t get to be CBS without knowing a thing or two about a thing or two, and the way it’s debuting its new shows is pretty smart. The network hasn’t changed the essence of its lineup, even while swapping out a bunch of its specific shows. If a night was dedicated to comedies, it’s still dedicated to comedies. If it was dedicated to dramas, it’s still dedicated to dramas. The faces are different, but they have pleasantly familiar shapes. (Plus, as CBS never tires of reminding everybody whenever its difficult 2016-’17 season comes up, Stephen Colbert is winning late night in total viewers now.)

CBS succeeds because it’s stable. One remarkable stat shared this week by the network’s programming head, Kelly Kahl, is that CBS has aired just two shows — JAG and NCIS — in its 8 pm Tuesday time slot in the past 20 years, while its next-closest competitor, NBC, has aired 32. CBS only makes big changes if events warrant them, and they don’t quite yet.

After all, the NBC drama This Is Us might be a bigger hit among younger viewers, but more people overall actually watched CBS’s Bull during the 2016-’17 season, making it the No. 1 new show. (That the No. 1 and No. 2 new shows among total viewers aired in the same exact time slot last season is an impressive argument in favor of broadcast television’s continued reach.) And even when the network needs to start cutting ties with a long-running favorite series, like Criminal Minds, which is decamping for 10 pm Wednesday after more than a decade of airing one hour earlier, it doesn’t move the show too far.

By remaining stable and prioritizing that stability, CBS is able to continue projecting a casual dominance of the network TV landscape. And that’s not nothing.

2) Shhh ... CBS is panicking!

Me, Myself & I
Me, Myself & I is going to get jerked all around the schedule.

But try looking at CBS’s new schedule, actually looking at it. It’s all over the place!

The biggest hurdle comes around the network’s comedies, which will launch and then be moved around willy-nilly over the course of the first several weeks of the season. Because CBS has two comedy blocks — on Monday and Thursday — and because it needs to devote the first half of its fall season to Thursday Night Football, there’s always an awkward period where, say, it takes two months to get the Thursday-night staple Mom on the air. (True to form, that show will debut in early November.) So some of this is expected.

But CBS’s 2017-’18 schedule is still completely off-the-map wacky in comparison with its past lineups. The Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon airs a one-off “preview” episode during premiere week in mid-September, then leaves the air for six weeks so it can return after football is over. Two new comedies — 9JKL and Me, Myself & I — air on Mondays for a few weeks, cushioned by Big Bang and Kevin Can Wait. But then they’ll be asked to shoulder a heavy burden by holding down a whole hour (from 8:30 to 9:30 pm) by themselves, before leading into the promising but unproven Superior Donuts at 9:30.

The only pieces CBS is relatively certain will work — The Big Bang Theory and Kevin Can Wait — are also getting jerked around to accommodate these other moves (though the former is probably used to it by now).

And perhaps weirdest of all is how many hours CBS has that pair multi-camera comedies (shot on soundstages in a very theatrical style, with live studio audiences) with single-camera comedies (shot much more like a film, sometimes on location, without a studio audience). To be fair, CBS kinda sorta pulled this off with its beloved Life in Pieces, a single-camera show that has now aired after multi-cams The Big Bang Theory and Mom. But vacillating between formats in the same comedy block is one of those things that rarely works in TV, and CBS is going to try to do it in three separate hours this fall. There’s far more in the way of goofy shenanigans in this schedule than CBS usually has.


None of the above was apparent from CBS’s upfront presentation to advertisers, which was long on bragging and short on mentioning younger viewers, except for a brief, snide suggestion that caring about audience demographics is a thing of the past. Why would you care about audience demographics in 2017, when you could just microtarget individual viewers and shit? Yeah, CBS!

To be clear: CBS has a lot to brag about when it comes to total viewership. It utterly dominates that metric. And it’s one of the more smartly run TV networks too. CBS All Access, its dedicated streaming service, is already up and running, when most other networks are going to wish they had something like it in about five years. (NBC, ABC, and Fox own Hulu jointly, but that partnership is fraught with peril, especially as Hulu more and more becomes its own platform.)

However, CBS also feels a little like an aging athlete at this point, demanding top dollar because of the glory days, when it’s pretty clear the glory days are subsiding into the distance. The network knows on some level that it needs to shake things up in a major way, but doing so might alienate its hugely loyal audience. So it takes baby steps.

Indeed, its big bet for the fall is Young Sheldon, literally an attempt to create a younger clone of its biggest hit, in that it awkwardly blends the tones of The Big Bang Theory and The Wonder Years. The clips package shown to advertisers — which is probably just a cut-down of a “presentation pilot,” or a collection of scenes shot to give a sense of what a series would look like, rather than a full pilot with a fleshed-out storyline — looked incredibly cheap, with garish lighting and bland costumes and sets. Let’s hope the actual show doesn’t look like that.

Creating literal clones of its hit shows has worked for CBS when it comes to NCIS and CSI. And maybe it will work again. But I have my doubts.

4) CBS’s dramas look like CBS dramas. And one of the comedies is literally Everybody Loves Raymond.

Wisdom of the Crowd
Jeremy Piven wants to solve YOUR crimes using crowdsourcing.

Say this for CBS: It knows what people like to watch on CBS. That’s why its new dramas are about Navy SEALs, SWAT team members, and a guy who solves crimes through crowdsourcing. (I kid you not. He’s even played by Jeremy Piven, possibly the one actor in Hollywood who makes me say, “Yeah, I’ll bet he would solve crimes by crowdsourcing.”)

Not a one of these premises is all that intriguing, but CBS rose to the top by relentlessly making solidly executed, kinda boring meat-and-potatoes dramas that wouldn’t have felt out of place on TV in the ‘70s. It’s been a little more focused on comedy since The Big Bang Theory broke out, but that also might be because it can churn out these sorts of dramas in its sleep.

The network’s new comedies, at least superficially, are a little more interesting. Me, Myself & I, which stars Bobby Moynihan and John Larroquette, tracks one man’s life at three different periods, which feels like it will fall apart about three episodes in, but you never know! (I felt that way about Life in Pieces, too, and that show is still on the air.) But the other two shows are Young Sheldon and 9JKL, the latter of which is about a guy who has to live in an apartment between his parents and his brother. That’s just literally: “What if Everybody Loves Raymond, but in apartments?”

5) CBS’s diversity record remains lousy. The network would thank you kindly to not talk about that.

CBS’s six new shows are all headed up by men. Just one (S.W.A.T.’s Shemar Moore) is a person of color. The roles for women in these series appear to be fairly standard wife and girlfriend parts. What’s more, two of the trailers CBS showed revolved around people of color who seemingly didn’t pose a threat — one a black teenager and one a Muslim terrorist who was supposed to be captured alive — being shot by the show’s heroes, who summarily felt bad about what they’d done, making it okay. (One of CBS’s other pilots is about tech billionaires taking over law enforcement agencies to make them run better, which is a weird plot to go with in this year of all years.)

It all serves to continue the diversity problem that CBS has had for a few years now. It’s by far the worst network when it comes to diverse protagonists or diverse showrunners. And the network knows it too, because journalists and various industry organizations keep asking questions about it.

And yet CBS’s answer to these questions never makes any sense. Its responses usually amount to some combination of, “We’re way more diverse than you act like we are, because our shows have women and people of color in them somewhere, but you should also just accept that these were our best pilots, and our best pilots always have white male leads.”

This is, of course, completely possible! I don’t get to see all the pilots CBS rejects. But the excuse that “all of our best projects just happened to be about white guys,” which is hard to believe from the start, only becomes harder to believe with every new year in which it applies.

Look, I don’t run CBS. I can’t tell ’em what to do. But at the very least, it would be great for the network to come up with an answer to the diversity question that doesn’t feel like it’s talking out of both sides of its mouth. If CBS wants to say, “Our target audience is white people in Middle America,” fine. Go for it. If it wants to say, “We know we have trouble on this front, but we’re working to fix it,” that’s even better. But its current answer lands somewhere in between, and that’s somehow the worst option of all.

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