CBS Is Not No. 1 and Someone Will Suffer — At Another Network (Analysis)

Being No. 1 in overall viewers but No. 3 in the demo (ouch) makes CBS hungrier and more focused than ever — but getting football calms the nerves.
Craig Blankenhorn/CBS
"Madam Secretary"

It's been a while since critics have seen CBS defensive and hungry. The noted home of the most-watched shows on television and the one impressively consistent network with so little churn in recent years, it comes to the Television Critics Association press tour Thursday looking up at NBC. And askance at Fox.

That will not make it happy.

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Having lost the demo race (but winning total viewers yet again), CBS would seem a likely candidate to be the aforementioned "defensive and hungry" comeback kid candidate — because it didn't just fall out of first; it fell to third. And the network that finished second — Fox — fired its entertainment president as a reward.

But perhaps CBS isn't very worried at all. It's not the kind of network that panics, even when things don't pan out.

And they certainly didn't last season.

Sure, Fox had the Super Bowl and NBC had the Winter Olympics — major events that CBS will no doubt point out helped both rival networks — but there were problems at CBS as well. Problems that, given its long history of winning and stability, seemed way off for the network.

How I Met Your Mother was retired, but CBS didn't pick up How I Met Your Dad, which so many pundits thought was a lock for the fall schedule. Perhaps CBS was just dubious about comedies, as it pulled back for the coming season (including dropping two single-camera comedies, which seemed not its style at all).

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Bad Teacher, The Crazy Ones, We Are Men and Friends With Better Lives hit the reject pile. Hostages and Intelligence were also dumped. More telling, CBS gave up on its Monday 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. four-pack of comedies, dropping a full hour and slotting in the drama Scorpion instead at 9 p.m.

See? No laughing matter, this third-place thing.

Every night, in fact, was rejiggered and so many dice were moved around in the CBS cups, it will interesting to see if its audience can remember where they were shifted.

Retrenchment and a return to what works — in rare years when CBS falters even a bit, you can bet that's the reaction that comes from the result. This coming season is no different. Instead of putting a freshman comedy on Monday, CBS will load up with The Big Bang Theory and Mom to play it safe before betting on the new drama Scorpion. Instead of going big with laughs on Thursdays, CBS tried another strategy (and this one looks rock solid) — by acquiring the first half of the season rights to the NFL's Thursday Night Football.

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That is likely to inflict damage on Fox and NBC mostly (ABC will counterprogram with female-skewing shows via the all-Shonda Rhimes night of Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder). While NBC's two freshman comedies in the 9 p.m. block may also skew female, good luck against Scandal.

Luckily for CBS's momentum, the whole of Thursday remains football through Oct. 23 (when the rest of the Thursday night games revert back to the NFL Network), with BBT moving back there to kick off the night post-football, followed by The Millers at 8:30 p.m., Two and a Half Men at 9 p.m. and freshman entry The McCarthys at 9:30 p.m.

Also, when in doubt, spin off. It's a CBS hallmark. So you can find NCIS: New Orleans on Tuesday nights and, come midseason, CSI: Cyber on Sundays. People watch what's familiar, particularly at CBS.

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All told, CBS is adding four and a half hours of freshman programming in the fall, which isn't much by anyone's standards except CBS. It doesn't scream panic, but it does give off a very stern "we're aware of the problem."

The fall show to keep an eye on is Madam Secretary on Sundays.

Will all of that be enough come back from — yuck — third place? Probably. And the boost from football on Thursday nights alone could do it. But together there's a good chance CBS won't have to keep looking up much longer.

Twitter: @BastardMachine