It's Not the Publicity That's Keeping CBS at No. 1

By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, December 29, 2008

This is the second in a series looking at the Four Actual Broadcast Networks, leading up to Winter TV Press Tour 2009. Today, CBS: last of the broadcasters.

CBS is having a good TV season.

And yet no one's writing about it.

The network is once again the country's most watched television network -- with nearly 2 million more viewers than its closest competitor, ABC.

It's ranked No. 1 among the younger viewers so sought after by advertisers. Five of its returning prime-time series are up vs. a year ago among those 18-to-49-year-olds. That's more than twice as many improved series as its closest competitor.

CBS's "The Mentalist" is the season's only new series that can be called a bona fide hit. And it's the only newbie on any network performing better in its time slot than the show it replaced. The drama series, which stars Simon Baker as a former made-for-TV psychic who now uses his super powers of observation to help cops solve heinous murder cases, attracted more than 19 million viewers to its most recent original episode -- CBS's largest audience for a regularly scheduled program on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. in nearly 14 years.

Sadly, you're not reading or hearing much about CBS's Really Good Season in the run-up to Winter TV Press Tour 2009. That's because, while CBS is now averaging the most young viewers of any broadcaster, it pulls in even more older viewers. That's called "broadcasting."

CBS's competitors, meanwhile, are targeting increasingly narrow, young audiences for which advertisers will pay a premium.

"Niche-cast" is the new broadcast.

"Broadcast" is the new dirty word.

The Reporters Who Cover Television don't write much about CBS or its programs because their publications, like the broadcast networks, are in a manic race to snag a younger audience. Pitching a CBS story to editors can be career suicide. It's the old-folks network. Were Chuck Lorre's "The Big Bang Theory" or "Two and a Half Men" on NBC, you'd be reading gushing articles about The Network That Saved the Sitcom. Instead, you're reading stories -- gobs of them -- about the hotness that is "30 Rock," which, after all the free publicity its creator/writer/star Tina Fey got playing GOP veep candidate Sarah Palin, is now up to an average of about 8 million viewers each week. That's compared with "Two and a Half Men's" 15 million -- though the spread isn't as big among 18-to-49-year-olds because, yes, "Two and a Half Men" is also attracting a good share of viewers over 50.

On the rare occasion when the press has said something positive about CBS or one of its shows, it's usually in terms of Can you believe who accidentally stumbled upon a hit -- golly!

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