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The Unsexy Domination of CBS (Analysis)

The network never seems to falter, but also never seems to be the 'It Girl.'

Nina Tassler
CBS

You can't blame CBS for having a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Up until recently -- and sometimes still recently -- the network was a very easy target for cheap jokes. A network watched by old people. Home of shows like NCIS. The unsexiest network. The good but boring network.

It goes on, in some form. And if NBC hadn't been driven into the ground so wrecklessly in the last, oh, decade, things might have been worse. But, of course, CBS is more than that, even when it's a lot of that. So when the network rolled into the Television Critics Association (along with sister network The CW and sister cable channel Showtime), it had a few things to remind critics about.

"We’re the No. 1 network in viewers," said entertainment president Nina Tassler. "We’re the No. 1 network in upfront market revenue, and this season surprise, surprise, we are the No. 1 broadcast network in Emmy nominations, and I’m really happy about that."

In a moment of snark control, someone even pointed out that all the jokes about its viewers being old -- as ABC's Jimmy Kimmel mocked at the upfronts in May and NBC's Joel McHale joked several days before CBS arrived at the press tour -- must be tiring.

 

"Well, first, I think they should probably stick to comedy and check their stats a little better," Tassler said. "Because we still have more 18-49s than NBC and ABC. So maybe they stay with comedy and not worry about demos and ratings so much."

Missing from those comments from Tassler: "So eat it!" (Although, if pressed, you might get something like that from Tassler off the stage, where she's much more fiery, funny and unfiltered.)

"Ratings, revenue, and Emmy nominations, that’s a pretty cool trifecta — and I don’t play the horses — and speaks to the network’s quality on the screen and our appeal to viewers as well as advertisers," Tassler added. "Now, if we can get the love from the TV critics, life would be perfect."

That might be a little harder -- though not as difficult as it has been in the past. Though critics are not known for doling out praise to shows that are ratings winners if they don't merit the praise creatively, CBS does have a burgeoning roster of shows a lot of critics like, starting with The Good Wife, breezing through the comedies How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory, and settling on reality franchises Survivor and The Amazing Race.

But that's about it. And honestly, if you're tracking love metrics, that's not the largest group of candidates, particularly when you realize how many other shows on the schedule are ignored (or awkwardly smiled at over in the corner and given a polite, non-meaningful wave). It's a schedule full of "meh" on a lot of nights.

And yet, CBS probably wouldn't have it any other way. It's the best run broadcast network for a reason -- it understands its audience better than the others and gives those viewers what they want, critics be damned. (For example, from the network that adopted Medium and birthed Ghost Whisperer, comes this fall's feel-good person-who-sees-dead-people drama, A Gifted Man. On Fridays, no less. That's automatic for the people, baby. You can hear the wheels of precision at CBS.) Would getting a big bear hug from critics make life perfect, as Tassler said? You'd have to think such an emotional gesture would be met with stiffness from CBS and a worry we'd put a shiv in its back. Despite a history of throwing some really great parties, there's not historical timeline of CBS-critic canoodling. 

CBS does just fine beating everybody's ass and winning, thank you very much. It seems to have learned to function in the self-esteem department without needing our validation.

And maybe that's a good thing. Reaction to new fall series Unforgettable, How to Be A Gentleman and A Gifted Man falls into the lukewarm category. They are buzzless and unsexy. Two other series from CBS are garnering something more akin to the love Tassler was looking for -- drama Person of Interest from J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, and comedy 2 Broke Girls from Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings.

Both of those latter shows have a lot of potential and, in fairness, few critics are really falling all over themselves for this fall's fare from any network. And yet, if you don't parse the two with buzz and take the batch as a whole, what's the reaction at hand? Well, if you've been paying attention at all to CBS in the last decade, you'd have to say a shrug and a "they will all probably work."

That's not a sentiment that's going to steam up anyone's glasses. But it's going to keep CBS in the win column most nights (without even considering that Ashton Kutcher's arrival could clean up CBS's biggest mess in Two and A Half Men, while Ted Danson's arrival on CSI might perk up that franchise as well).

So what do you call that if "sexy" is not even remotely in consideration? Oh, right, "successful." 

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine