CBS Upfront: Nixing Repeats, Making Room for the NFL and Four More Takeaways

The coming year is all about David Letterman, as Leslie Moonves and Nina Tassler don't even mention Stephen Colbert during their New York presentation, and network brass sling casual barbs at cable, Silicon Valley and their traditional competition.
Monty Brinton/CBS
Leslie Moonves

It's hard to argue with CBS' confidence. Despite losing the network's No. 1 ratings status from last season, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves and CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler didn't seem to know the meaning of "bad news" when they took the Carnegie Hall stage during Wednesday's upfront presentation.

A couple hours after unveiling an only slightly tweaked fall schedule to reporters, the duo greeted buyers with a promise of a lift from sports (Thursday Night Football), fewer repeats and much affection and attention for outgoing Late Show host David Letterman and lone critical darling, The Good Wife.

Here are the key takeaways:

1. We're better than cable

Ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross opened the CBS upfront presentation starring in a parody of Pink's high-wire routine at last year's Grammy Awards -- which air on CBS, of course. No, Ross was not dangling from an actual cable over the audience at Carnegie Hall. Rather, her head was superimposed on Pink's body. But Ross used the bit to make the point that she was supported not "from a weak little strand of cable" -- a dig at the cable TV competition. "You can always count on broadcast," she said. "We will never leave you hanging." Like her peers at NBC, Fox and ABC, Ross appealed to the measurement dilemma facing media buyers in an increasingly on-demand environment. She was short on details. But Ross touted "custom multiplatform solutions that will extend your messages into your customers' lives wherever they are" and "powerful data to help you buy smarter." And Moonves admitted that "overnight ratings, although still fun to read at CBS, are not quite as important as they used to be."

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2. Good luck, Silicon Valley

Broadcast executives have found themselves partnering with and competing against new digital players including Netflix and Amazon. But Moonves took something of a combative stance during the upfront presentation, cautioning "the Silicon Valley guys" that creating content is "incredibly hard." And he derided the industry for calling its presentations to media buyers -- there were more than two dozen of them in the weeks leading up to broadcast upfront week -- the NewFronts. "They used to call us 'OldFront' before they started doing exactly what we do," he said. "We're happy to welcome everyone to this new content revolution." But he reminded buyers: "Not everyone can get the job done hit after hit, season after season."

3. Football is just the icing on the cake

Hands down the biggest change to CBS' schedule is the seven-week addition of Thursday Night Football (the package is nine games total, two of which air on Saturday, Dec. 20, and seven on Thursday nights). The Big Four net with the most consistent lineup has every reason to make a big deal out of it -- after all, CBS put down close to $300 million for those games. And the NFL received the same amount of fanfare as a midseason drama. (Sorry Nina, we know you hate that word.) Moonves summed up his thoughts thusly, blowing up a New York Times article about the bidding war that read, "Ultimately, the victory went to the strongest network in primetime, which, it could be argued, needed the games the least."

4. It's still Dave's world

One area where CBS is about to see some uncharacteristic change is in late night. The 2015 retirement of David Letterman, the announcement of which was swiftly followed by Stephen Colbert being tapped as his replacement, was a big point during the show. Letterman trotted out on stage, shook Moonves' hand and made a few polite jokes after a fawning, sentimental clip package. Colbert's name wasn't mentioned once, so the messaging about the coming season being a tribute to Letterman clearly hasn't changed a bit. There also was no word about his end date. And if any news was expected out of this presentation, that was it.

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5. Repeats? What repeats?

Tassler and Moonves both stressed that the addition of seven Thursdays of football will mean that its Thursday night shows will run virtually without repeats. "How great is that on the biggest night of television?" Tassler pronounced. Indeed, Thursday night is the most lucrative for networks from an advertising standpoint as retailers and especially movie studios crowd into the night on the hopes of getting customers to the mall and multiplex over the weekend. It is a strategy that will be repeated throughout the schedule, Tassler promised, declaring the term "midseason" dead and stressing a year-round approach to programming beginning this summer with the second season of Under the Dome and leading into the Halle Berry miniseries Extant.

6. Good times for The Good Wife

It might be CBS' lowest-performing scripted series on its returning roster, but The Good Wife is apparently considered the network's star -- five seasons in. The Julianna Margulies legal drama got more face time than even The Big Bang Theory during CBS' 90-minute presentation. The cast made a special (and profane) skit to introduce the program, supporting player Alan Cumming channeled his Cabaret alter ego with a musical number and clips of its latest season dominated the drama package. At times, the whole thing played more like a TV Academy schmoozer for Emmy voters than an upfront.