5:32pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: CBS' Upfront Accentuates the Positive, Glosses Over the Negative
Stephen Colbert, early in his monologue Wednesday at CBS' upfront presentation, joked that he'd been given a massive packet of information on the network's successful 2018-19 season, but that instead he'd chosen to read the four-page Bill Barr summary.
"Turns out, Les Moonves? Totally exonerated! I did not see that coming," he cracked.
Colbert paused for laughter and discomfort.
Of this acknowledgment of CBS' primary under-discussed elephant, Colbert said, "There had to be one."
In more Highlander terms, the truth was there can be only one. Apparently.
CBS' upfront was staged in the perpetual shade of the past year in the life of the network and yet for 90 minutes, every executive and star who took the stage walked the corporate line of "strength and stability," a mantra first recited by Tony Romo in a painful "pregame" filmed segment and echoed in part or whole throughout. That's how CBS ended up with the most and least convincing upfront of this past week, and since advertisers aren't burdened by the things that burden my critical mind, the primary message probably landed completely.
After all, why would an advertiser get queasy about the five minutes that CBS brass spent talking about empowered women on and off camera and the ironic hashtag #CBSSeesHer just hours after similar CBS executives faced a bevy of questions from reporters about whether or not we should be nauseated that ratings for Bull were deemed more important than the stigma attached to retaining a drama that paid actress Eliza Dushku just under $10 million as a settlement stemming from harassment allegations and her subsequent firing.
CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl described what happened with Dushku as an isolated event out of keeping with star Michael Weatherly's character and tenure at CBS, one that he's admitted was a mistake and for which he apologized.
Of the situation, Kahl told reporters, "What happened was something that a lot of us didn’t know about."
This is not a message that aligns well with #CBSSeesHer, though #CBSPaysOffVictims or #CBSStandsByMembersOfTheCBSFamily are probably too cumbersome to ever trend, and #CBSSeesRatings is probably too cynical.
Of the network's new attentiveness and cultural reforms, Kahl emphasized, "However things were handled in the past, they're not being handled that way now." So let's pretend that CBS is leaving Bull on the schedule as an ongoing cautionary tale, a reminder for everybody at the network to never let objectionable behavior in the workplace become bad enough again that a $10 million payoff is required. To that end, I assume that as Bull approaches syndication and since CBS TV Studios no longer has to split profits with Amblin, that money is being parlayed directly into a fellowship for developing and nurturing female writers and directors. Right?
It's all about not forgetting how we got here.
It's the same with Susan Zirinsky, who made an exciting first upfronts appearance as head of CBS News along with ascending CBS Evening News anchor Norah O'Donnell. It was impossible to watch Zirinsky without being impressed by her and without noting the clear respect everybody on the stage had for her. It was also hard to watch her without reflecting on which a huge job she faces as the entire company tries to shift the conversation away from Les Moonves and Charlie Rose and Jeff Fager and payouts associated with Don Hewitt. I ponder again why anybody would want Bull on the schedule as a neon-signed reminder or why Colbert would pretend that one Moonves joke was self-deprecation enough.
I say all that, but amid the ignoring and misdirection, CBS made a good case for itself with advertisers.
Strength and stability! We've seen how easy it is to go from the top to the bottom in various ratings measurements, and only a fool would scoff at the achievement represented by 11 straight seasons as TV's most-watched network or at Colbert's expanding domination in the late-night space.
I can also acknowledge that CBS' new programming looked generally more consistent and promising than anything else we've seen this week, judging only by trailers.
Evil, from the Good Wife/Fight team of Michelle and Robert King, has a cast I love — Katja Herbers has deserved a starring vehicle since Manhattan, Michael Emerson is always good and the Kings know how to get the best out of Mike Colter — and a juicy supernatural thriller-comedy premise.
The Unicorn gives Walton Goggins the rare chance to play a stable, likable guy, and if there's ever been an actor who deserved the chance at an ongoing CBS paycheck, it's this Justified and Shield veteran. Throw in the great Michaela Watkins and a strange Ballers reunion of Rob Corddry and Omar Benson Miller and this might a comedy to watch.
I see promise in Bob Hearts Abishola, despite a tough title, because the tone of the trailer was much more serious than I expected and Chuck Lorre has done good multicam dramedy work on Mom and Folake Olowofoyeku could be a promising lead.
The Edie Falco vehicle Tommy also looks decent despite a bad title, basically an immediate replacement for Madam Secretary once that ends its run. And in Patricia Heaton and Simone Missick, Carol's Second Act and All Rise, respectively, have proven leads in roles they appear to be well-suited for.
Yet another season as TV's most-watched network is all butguaranteed, so maybe we should actually be thankful that CBS has kept Bull around as a reminder of the need for scrutiny. There has to be one.