Inside CBS' Upfront: Love for Les, 'Murphy Brown' Returns, Fewer White Men

Murphy Brown First Look CBS - Screenshot - H 2018
“So how’s your week been?”
If you’re Leslie Moonves, it probably got a little better after you asked that question to a Carnegie Hall crowd standing in applause. Ignoring the legal drama, his network isn’t having too bad of a week, either — at least not Wednesday afternoon, when CBS offered up its annual upfront presentation to a particularly responsive audience.

It wasn’t just the stage appearance that had the ad buyers clapping. A salty introductory video started things off on a strong note, with John Malkovich hilariously (if randomly) evangelizing the CBS brand after a coaxing call with Moonves. “Fucking executives,” Malkovich moaned as he hung up on the CBS chief. “Fucking talent,” said Moonves

After the longtime network patriarch’s portion of the show ended, the rest of the spiel — which ran an hour and 34 minutes, comparatively breezy by Big Four standards — had show trailers that played well with the audience and brief talent appearances (Stephen Colbert, James Corden, the cast of Murphy Brown) that all got laughs. The event was also dramatically different from years past in a very specific way. None of the stars who came out to plug the new scripted series — Cedric the Entertainer, Damon Wayans Jr., Jay Hernandez, Brandon Micheal Hall, Candice Bergen and Missy Peregrym — where white men, a group the crowd has grown accustomed to seeing on the tops of CBS call sheets.

The Gimmick | Echoing Moonves’ affinity for broadcast television, CBS ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross delivered her customary succinct remarks about the power and scale of CBS to connect advertisers' brands to consumers. But like her sales peers that preceded her this week, she also touted a new data pitch, CBS DNA, which is apparently an awkward acronym for "Data Enabled TV." And she talked up an alliance with the Association of National Advertisers' #SeeHER campaign, to ensure that “women and girls are portrayed accurately in CBS programming.” Minutes later, during a clip of programming on the OTT platform CBS All Access, there was a shot of strippers in pasties.

The Spin | Entertainment president Kelly Kahl dutifully went through the network’s weekly schedule, which seems like an anachronistic exercise in the on-demand content universe. The network has spent considerable effort on its revamped Monday lineup — which is much more diverse than in years past, with comedies starring Cedric the Entertainer (The Neighborhood) and Wayans (Happy Together), which Kahl described as “a fresh take on the family comedy.” He also got a victory lap among total viewers. Although NBC overtook CBS after the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the network climbed back to No. 1 for the 10th season in a row just in time for upfronts

The Star Power | Colbert turned up to tout his show’s performance of late (“We’ve been No. 1 since Inauguration Day!”) and deliver a series of on-brand, Trump-centric digs. Among the highlights: when he suggested the president was running the White House as though it were a television network. “The Rex Tillerson Show didn’t get picked up for a second season, [though] it looked promising at first,” he joked. “Then Paul Ryan shocked us all and announced that this is his final season, which is sad because now we don’t get to see how Congress ends.” Like Colbert, Late Late Show host Corden stayed on brand during his turn before the audience of media buyers, pitching a Young Sheldon knockoff, fittingly titled Young Corden: “Bring your checkbooks!” 

The Favorite | Four months after giving it a 13-episode order out of the blue, CBS made Murphy Brown the centerpiece of its upfront presentation — trotting out the returning and new castmembers after playing a teaser and highlight reel of the original. "We want to be really timely, that's why we didn't film a pilot," said star Candice Bergen. "If we had, we'd already be several major headlines and a dozen Stormys out of date." Bergen, both onstage and in the "Where are they now?" teaser, leaned hard on mocking Donald Trump — echoing Colbert's brief turn.

The Room | It certainly seemed like the warmest reception of the week so far. Maybe buyers were just happy to be wrapping up the Big Four, but it seems more likely that there was excitement about the Moonves appearance. The CEO, who did not make his usual "Lox With Les" upfront morning meet-up with press, is waging public war with parent company National Amusements and topper Shari Redstone — making it the most palpably timely event of the upfronts.

WTF? Moment | No one is arguing that Young Sheldon isn't a huge success, but when describing it as the "No. 1 new show on television," Kahl was ignoring the boffo success of ABC's Roseanne — old, for sure, but new as far as the TV playbook is concerned. 

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