Can Anything Derail CBS?

TCA Summer Press Tour | Beverly Hills, July 21-Aug. 3

"When you have a chance to build a show around one of the greatest detectives in all of literature, you're going to jump at the opportunity," said CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler (center) of the network's contemporary Sherlock Holmes drama "Elementary" (with series stars Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller).

I've said many times over that CBS is the best-run broadcast network. It's like a machine. It dominates. It knows the target audience and makes shows, often very good ones, directed at that audience. It wins.

Subsequently, it doesn't have to make a lot of new series because there's little turnover on the schedule. That makes its appearance at TCA kind of a lifeless affair. I've joked - yes, more than once -- that entertainment president Nina Tassler should just walk on stage and say, "We kicked everybody's ass again" and then just drop the mic and walk off.

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Here's Tassler ticking off the recent positives of the network: "CBS continues to be America’s most watched network by a wide margin. Our overall audience is up versus a year ago, and we’re coming off the biggest ratings week by any network this season. We continue to deliver the deepest schedule with the most hit shows -- 15 of the top 20 last week alone. CBS is also home to the top scripted series in each genre. NCIS is the most watched show on television. Big Bang is TV’s No. 1 show in 18-49, and The Millers, Crazy Ones, and Mom are the number one, two and three new comedies on television."

See what I mean?

But periodically the teflon armor surrounding CBS -- a network that can seemingly put anything on the air and its loyal, not super-picky audience will watch -- starts to get dented.

During this winter tour of TCA, the only shows CBS presented were Intelligence, a drama that recently aired to great ratings and then again to much less great ratings, and Friends With Better Lives, a sitcom that is spectacularly unfunny.

Mind you, I often find most of CBS's comedies egregiously unfunny, but that hasn't stopped them from pulling in millions of viewers and sticking around for seasons on end. While it's true that popularity is no indication of quality, CBS will take the popularity part of that equation every time, critics be damned.

While other networks have come before us through recent years praising the fact that their ratings were flat (it's hard out there), then apologized or explained away the myriad series failures of the past six months (press tour is twice yearly), we almost always have to scramble to find a CBS weakness.

Like pointing out on Wednesday that Hostages didn't do so great creatively (after a buzz-heavy pilot) and failed to light the world on fire with its ratings. J'accuse, you're human!

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There's so little that goes wrong on CBS's gleaming machine that jumping all over Intelligence seemed like one of the few viable options. It came with the added benefit that the show was losing to NBC's The Blacklist, another freshman series a lot of us like (Metacritic score: 74; Intelligence, 56).

And yet, it wasn't much. There's never much to fault. What can be said from the Intelligence issue that CBS doesn't already know? The Blacklist is a better show. It has a magnetic leading man and excellent actor in James Spader. NBC very effectively promoted the hell out of that show and it makes sense (which Intelligence doesn't really).

OK, so CBS lost that one. It's still smashing everybody else. Could it lose the season to NBC, which has been riding high on football and has the Winter Olympics? Sure, I suppose. Could it lose to Fox, which has the Super Bowl and some good new shows? Theoretically anything is possible. But when the season is over and the numbers are crunched, CBS might win in total viewers and the demo. Again.

It's too early for predictions on that. But here's one -- CBS will not change the way it operates. You may remember that on Tuesday Fox announced right here at TCA that it was dumping the traditional pilot season and developing on a year-round schedule, getting out ahead of the process to maximize creative results.

It's an intriguing story. The Fox changes are laudable and encouraging.

On Wednesday at CBS's day, Tassler said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "That's a cute idea for them."

What she really said was very straightforward: "Perhaps pilot season for them is more challenging. For us, it’s a part of the process that does work with its inherent challenges, but it does work."

She could have also said, "Why change what works?" Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what she was saying.

And it's not like you can get preachy about CBS not being forward thinking and how that could come back to bite it in the ass some day. Last summer CBS put on Under the Dome, outside of the old-school, traditional September to May season. It wasn't a burn-off. It was arguably the first really legitimate scripted effort of the summer, after years of networks saying they would program the summer to battle cable's dominance but only offered up half-ass measures.

Under the Dome was the real deal.  And it worked very well for CBS (shocker). And next summer Under the Dome will return, along with another high-profile "event" series called Extant with Halle Berry. Fox is definitely programming the summer as well -- we'll need to see if serious efforts will be made from NBC and ABC that go beyond reality shows and who-cares-if-you-sink-or-swim scripted efforts.

The point is, Fox should be rightly touted for trying to change old habits, but CBS -- the oldest-seeming habit in the network business -- has already done summer, will do it again and, as Tassler said, will evolve as necessary. And that deserves respect as well.

It's not a sexy story -- "CBS To Remain Same, Win Race."  But until CBS falters, these are the kinds of TCA non-stories we'll get.

Can CBS trip up? Sure. Its hit comedies are aging and the attraction and draft that Big Bang Theory radiates can't sustain everything (or can it?). At some point -- and this may be wish fulfillment from someone who likes CBS's dramas but loathes its pandering, often offensive, unfunny comedies -- there could be a toll to pay for those that are currently being propped up. I mean, a network shouldn't be able to make a sitcom as vapid as Friends With Better Lives and be rewarded for it.

But until things change for the worse, there won't be any change. And I'm not wishing it on them just so there's something juicy to write at the summer TCA press tour. Two of my favorite network dramas are Elementary and Person Of Interest, plus The Good Wife is quite good. It's the comedies (outside of BBT and the now-tired but formerly good How I Met Your Mother) that are galling.

Despite that latter element, I remain utterly impressed by the precision machine that is CBS. It's incredibly hard to keep a network humming at the top of its game for one season, let alone multiple seasons (see: ABC, NBC).

So if nothing changes this season, ratings-wise, then I'm hoping CBS will indulge me the mic drop scenario at the next press tour.


Twitter: @BastardMachine