CBS Plots Business as Usual Fall Schedule — for Now

NCIS - Mark Harmon- Publicity still - H 2020
Michael Yarish/CBS

It's business as usual for the fall at CBS — at least for now.

While fellow broadcast networks Fox and The CW have found creative ways to "corona-proof" their fall schedules, CBS opted for a more optimistic view as its slate is a return to stability as it holds out hope that production on new and returning dramas and comedies can resume this summer and make their fall debut.

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl did, however, admit in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that it's "highly unlikely" that 90 percent of the network's schedule will launch during the traditional Premiere Week in late September. The hope, he said, is for production to return to work sometime in the summer — be it June or as late as August — with scripted launches potentially being staggered on a show-by-show basis that will be determined by when it's safe to resume production.

"We are very proud of this schedule and these shows and we're excited to get them on the air as soon as safely possible," Kahl said. "We're confident — at the very least, hopeful — that production will resume in the summer and we're hopeful most of these shows will be on this fall."

Of the network's fall schedule, only The Amazing Race is completely in the can. The series was held back from its May debut and will be paired with Survivor on Wednesdays, with work on the latter reality competition series also expected to resume. (Survivor's 41st season was delayed in March as filming across the TV industry halted.)

While a traditional September launch is a long shot, Kahl noted the network has a number of contingencies in mind should production be unable to resume, though he declined to share specific details beyond acquisitions and library content from the combined ViacomCBS company.

CBS' schedule arrives as both Fox and The CW opted to coronavirus-proof their fourth-quarter launches. Fox opted to hold two spring scripted series for fall (Next and Filthy Rich) and acquire the Spectrum drama L.A.'s Finest as only The Masked Singer will need to be filmed. The CW — a joint venture between CBS TV Studios and Warner Bros. TV — opted to delay its new and returning scripted series until January to allow producers and the industry as a whole more time to resume filming under new safety protocols which are likely to add time to every production. The CW's fall schedule features a few foreign acquisitions and streaming imports from their parent companies with DC Universe's Swamp Thing and CBS All Access' Tell Me a Story.

In keeping with tradition, CBS brass touted its advertiser-friendly schedule of stability with changes only to its Thursday and Sunday lineups as Chuck Lorre's freshman comedy B Positive bumps the sophomore half-hour The Unicorn back to 9:30 p.m. (The network opted to keep Lorre's Bob Hearts Abishola on Mondays rather than creating a block of four comedies on Thursday from the prolific producer.) Sundays will see the Queen Latifah-led Equalizer reboot take over for the since-canceled God Friended Me.

On the bench for midseason are Alex Kurtzman's Silence of the Lambs follow-up drama Clarice, the fourth season of SWAT and the unscripted veteran Undercover Boss. CBS will also be home to Super Bowl LV, which it will broadcast Feb. 7. The network did not announce what would air after the game. Additional new series are expected to be revealed at a later date.

Below is CBS' planned schedule, followed by an interview with Kahl and teasers for the new shows B Positive, The Equalizer and Clarice. (The latter two are sizzle reels, given that B Positive was the only pilot this season to complete production.)

8 p.m.: The Neighborhood
8:30 p.m.: Bob Hearts Abishola
9 p.m.: All Rise
10 p.m.: Bull

8 p.m.: NCIS
9 p.m.: FBI
10 p.m.: FBI: Most Wanted

8 p.m.: Survivor
9 p.m.: The Amazing Race
10 p.m.: SEAL Team

8 p.m.: Young Sheldon
8:30 p.m.: B Positive
9 p.m.: Mom
9:30 p.m.: The Unicorn
10 p.m.: Evil

8 p.m.: MacGyver
9 p.m.: Magnum PI
10 p.m.: Blue Bloods

8 p.m.: Crimetime Saturday
9 p.m.: Crimetime Saturday
10 p.m.: 48 Hours

7 p.m.: 60 Minutes
8 p.m.: The Equalizer
9 p.m.: NCIS: Los Angeles
10 p.m.: NCIS: New Orleans

Is this schedule for a September Premiere Week launch?

It's a schedule for fall. There are no premiere dates attached to this. That being said, we wouldn't normally attach premiere dates this early, anyway. We still will be in process of figuring out what premiere dates look like as we walk a little farther down the road here.

Is this October? January?

There's a lot we don't know. We are certainly hopeful we can get into production this summer and we are hopeful that these shows will premiere in the fall. I don't anticipate a traditional Premiere Week where 90 percent of our shows start the third week of September; I think that's highly unlikely. At the same point, we are hopeful these shows will premiere at some point this fall.

Knowing that Premiere Week launch is not an option, when is "the fall" if you're anticipating a summer return to filming?

Summer might not mean June, might mean August. Even then it's wrong to assume that if a show's production is pushed back a month, that its premiere is pushed back a month. Typically, the way shows are produced, we aim for eight, nine or 10 episodes in a row to start the year. Maybe that won't be the case. This is a presidential [election] year as well, and there are built-in breaks along the way for a lot of nights for debates and the election itself. The fall will not look like a traditional fall, but that doesn't mean we can't have shows there. If a show is a month late in starting production, that doesn't mean it's a month late getting to the schedule. Shows can go into production in August and still be on in late September. Shows can turn around quickly. It catches up to you at some point, mainly in the number of episodes you're able to do consecutively, that's why shows do start early. It might mean they do instead of 10 airing in the fourth quarter, maybe it's eight. And that's OK.

And you're still hoping to do 22 to 24 episodes for the bulk of your flagship series?

Sure, but again, we may find that they simply run out of time and for some shows, it might mean 20 vs. 22, depending on when they start. Our hope is for full seasons of all of these shows. We've spoken to them and all understand there may be limitations to what can be accomplished this season.

And if production can't resume in the summer?

We have contingencies — plenty of them in place — for no matter when the season will start. But I also think it's a fallacy to think of the fall season as being, "OK, it starts Sept. 21." I think with different shows, different types of production and different locations, shows are going to start at different times and they'll probably be ready to air at different times. 

What are some of the contingency plans you're looking at potentially for September?

We have many options available to us. We are being pitched things all the time — special series and acquisitions. I'd also note that with rejoining with Viacom, we have a lot of options there, as well. You see what we've been doing with movies on Sundays. That's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to possibilities with this larger company and its many assets.

So why not launch a schedule with those things given the level of uncertainty about when production can resume?

First and foremost, we are hopeful again that we are able to get our fall schedule up. We can talk about contingencies until the cows come home, but in equally likely possibility, we are on the air with an awful lot of our shows this fall. We have an amazing amount of resources at our disposal and come fall — be it September, October, November — we will have terrific programming to put on the air. Hopefully most of the programming you see on the fall schedule.

So hypothetically, multicamera comedies could film without a studio audience in the summer if it's safe and they figure that out. And those launch in September. But something like the FBI shows, which both film in New York, could be more challenging to return to production and those could return later. The goal is to have this be the schedule at some point, even if the premiere dates are staggered throughout the fall?

The goal is to get all these shows back into production as quickly as possible when smart people have determined that we can go into production in a safe manner. I can't tell you whether that is June, July or August. The likelihood is we will have to be nimble. Just as you saw the last couple months — where several of our shows terminated their seasons a little short of their full-season order — we had to be nimble and we were. We did the movies on Sundays, we did some specials and we'll have that flexibility in the fall. We will adapt to whatever conditions we have. Despite that, we still won our 12th season in a row and proven ourselves to be pretty nimble no matter what's thrown at us, and that's the strategy we'll take in the fall.

Even if you can return and you put in all of the safety protocols, you will inevitably have talent who simply aren’t comfortable returning. Maybe it’s a star who is older; maybe it’s a star who cares for a parent. What do you do? 

Our production people are having daily discussions with other studios, with guilds, unions, health care professionals, city, county and state officials and production will begin when everyone is confident that we can produce in a safe manner. Nothing is going to happen until then.

Have you had conversations with Mark Harmon?

I have not had a conversation with Mark Harmon.

Production on Survivor and The Amazing Race was interrupted. What precautions are you taking there and with those casts? Has anyone from either show dropped out?

I don't believe anyone has dropped out. We are going to take all precautions that take all steps to protect the health and safety of our contestants — or in scripted shows, or actors — but also certainly the crew. Everyone's health and safety is going to be taken into consideration.

New safety protocols will add time and thus money to budgets for these productions, plus likely insurance concerns and possible content limitations that could fuel CGI scenes. How are you seeing budgets being impacted at this stage?

We will cross those bridges when we get to them. Right now, the most important thing establishing what those protocols are that allow us to return to production safely.

What's the status of this season of Big Brother and Love Island?

We are hoping to get into production for both of those shows this summer. The key difference on those shows is the turnaround time is quick. Big Brother airs live shows every week. Love Island is essentially a one-day turnaround. If we can get into production and we certainly anticipate that, we anticipate having those shows on this summer.

You still have a number of pilots in contention. How are you looking at those?

We're evaluating all that on a daily basis. These are unprecedented times and we are having to make some tricky and hard decisions every day on these shows. We hope to keep them all moving forward, although the timing on those projects could change.

Interview edited for length and clarity.