Old Perceptions Die Hard for Flourishing CBS

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!

More often, it's:

How bad is [the new TV season going]? Only eight of 66 returning shows have gained viewers and five of them are on CBS, where, to be fair, a good chunk of the viewership is still tuned to the network because that was what happened to be on the TV when they died. (That's a Time magazine blogger writing recently about CBS's performance this season. Hmmm. Wonder how Time's circulation is doing these days. Oh look -- not good! Wonder what the median age of Time readers is these days. Oh look -- pushing 50!)

Not only is CBS getting no cover stories, it's also getting no trophies. The Television Critics Association barely acknowledges CBS at its annual awards-dispensing -- and when it does, it's almost always for news programming or some ancient show getting a lifetime achievement award. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association generally sniffs at CBS at its Golden Globe Awards. Even CBS's peers at the television academy show it no love at Primetime Emmy Awards time, with the notable exception of the network's reality series "Amazing Race" and the academy's first-ever Reality Series Host Emmy to "Survivor's" Jeff Probst. When Anthony LaPaglia sneezes on NBC's "Frasier," he wins an Emmy for best guest actor in a comedy series. When Anthony LaPaglia stars in CBS's "Without a Trace" for six seasons -- nothing.

CBS's problem isn't ratings -- it's perception.

CBS was the first broadcast network to get original episodes of scripted series back on the air after last season's 100-day writers' strike. The network's push to return to a semblance of normalcy stat was in marked contrast to some of its competitors, who decided to keep key freshman series off the air for the rest of that season and relaunch them this season, with disastrous results.

CBS's Monday comedies were the first shows back on the air once the walkout ended. Not coincidentally, three of those five returning CBS series that are doing better this season than last are sitcoms: "The Big Bang Theory," "How I Met Your Mother" and "Two and a Half Men," all of which recently logged season -- or series -- best performances.

The other two returning shows with improved young-demo numbers are "NCIS," which is reaping the benefit of being paired with the like-minded "The Mentalist" on Tuesdays, and the newsmag "60 Minutes," which this season cleverly scheduled younger-targeting news reports in editions that followed a football doubleheader -- see a shirtless Anderson Cooper swim a lap with Michael Phelps to make the point that Phelps is the better swimmer and Cooper has been working out.

CBS also bores the press because it doesn't have that whole "bright shiny light" thing to which they are attracted. There is a shocking lack of executive-purging at the network; many key execs have been with CBS Super-Chief Les Moonves since way back when he was a producer running Warner Brothers TV.

There's also a notable lack of the melodrama that makes for an interesting read. CBS tends to stick with its shows longer and move them around its lineup less. While the other networks race to become "different," CBS sticks with the traditional -- not so sexy, but it seems to be working. CBS tried "sexy" last season -- its swing-for-the-fences season, the network's programming chief, Nina Tassler, called it. It was the season of "Viva Laughlin" and "Kid Nation" and "Swingtown." It was a disaster, and Fox took over as the No. 1 network. So CBS went back to doing what it does best.

In the past five weeks, CBS has enjoyed better ratings than last year, and season-to-date would probably have been dead-on compared with the same time last season had the network not delayed for three weeks the launch of Thursday's "CSI," the country's most watched scripted series, because of presidential debate scheduling.

But the rap on CBS is that it's the meat-and-potatoes crime-show network Americans love even as TV critics can't figure out why. Critics like precious shows like "Arrested Development" and "Pushing Daisies" and "The Office." CBS has none of those.

Critics also love shows you have to marry -- shows like "Lost," "Heroes," "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" and "Damages." Major time commitments. Serious long-term relationships.

CBS shows, on the other hand, you can date. You can hang out with "Cold Case" a couple of weeks, then take a couple of weeks off, and when you come back, "Cold Case" welcomes you back with open arms. It does not slap you with some inscrutable mythology to punish you for having strayed. Viewers love shows they can date, particularly after having been burned by some series they've married.

Tomorrow, NBC: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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