Inside CBS' Upfront: New Execs, Colbert Cracks, Well-Received Clips and a 'Big Bang' Bow

The network heralded new series — and new execs — while giving a strong send-off to its biggest hit.
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS
The cast and creator of 'The Big Bang Theory' said farewell to ad buyers Wednesday at CBS' upfront presentation.

As several hundred deep-pocketed ad buyers filed into New York's Carnegie Hall on Wednesday afternoon, CBS began its annual pitch-fest with NFL broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. 

Remaining on brand, the pair served up an appropriately cheesy pregame show, touting the strength of CBS as though it were the New England Patriots. In fact, Nantz and Romo called its new “head coach,” CEO Joe Ianniello, “downright Belichickian” before running through the rest of the team: chief creative officer David Nevins, who they noted had been successful at other teams and now was playing for CBS; “head of offense” (and entertainment president) Kelly Kahl; and “quarterback” (and ad sales chief) JoAnn Ross. 

Following a collection of impressive statistics — and nary a mention of former chief Leslie Moonves for the first half-hour (God bless Stephen Colbert, who leaned right in) — CBS rolled a montage of clips that attempted to sell the breath of CBS Corp., with footage from CBS, CBS All Access, Showtime and even Pop programming. From there, it was back to bragging rights, with Nevins taking the stage for his first upfront in his elevated role, reiterating that CBS is the most-watched network for the 11th consecutive year.

Unlike the network’s press event earlier in the day, which was hijacked by a charged discussion of harassment and its aftermath, the 90-minute upfront remained decidedly upbeat, ending on a particularly classy (and rather un-Moonvesian) note with Kahl taking a moment to highlight and express gratitude for the team at large. Here are the highlights:

Buh-Bye, Big Bang

Just as ABC invited the cast of Modern Family to its stage a day earlier for an emotional farewell (a year before the long-running comedy actually signs off), CBS did the same for the cast and creator of The Big Bang Theory, which signs off Thursday after 12 seasons. After a powerful reel, Chuck Lorre took the mic, reminding the Madison Avenue audience of the No. 1 comedy’s origins: “Thirteen years ago, we made a pilot,” he began. “And around this time, 13 years ago, [then-entertainment chief] Nina Tassler called me and said, ‘It’s not very good. Would you consider doing it again?’ To which I said, ‘Yes, and thank you.’ And here we are.” On behalf of the actors, star Kaley Cuoco thanked several involved, including the incomparable Lorre, for “changing all of our lives.”

Playing the Numbers Game

As usual, ad sales chief Ross kicked off the company’s presentation with a bevy of stats — CBS platforms give media buyers access to 40 million people a day, every day — while wearing a goofy costume. This time, Ross was dressed in a bedazzled football jersey and shoulder pads. Like Nantz and Romo, she also acknowledged the elephant in the room — without uttering the name of said elephant. “It’s been wild ride since last we met,” said Ross. She also spent a few minutes plugging the company’s partnership with the Association of National Advertisers' #SeeHer initiative to eliminate gender bias in media, noting that the company has worked with several brands including Johnson & Johnson and AT&T to create gender-positive branded content. (This would be one of many, many, many times during the program that execs and talent would emphasize the increase in representation for women and people of color — on camera and off. 

Colbert's CBS Accession Continues 

With The Late Show With Stephen Colbert's wider margin of victory every year (it currently rakes in 3.8 million nightly viewers), Colbert's CBS-deprecating barbs on the upfront stage are well-earned. "Despite Lindsey Graham's advice, I honored my subpoena to be here tonight," he said, before noting he'd just turned 55 — and aged out of all measurable ad demos. "I just want to thank you all for all the years you gave a damn about what I watched." He then took a stab at CBS' 10-plus years as America's most-watched network: "That means that there's a lot of old people who don't realize the TV in the basement has been on for over a decade. Please, no one tell them!" It was a brief set, but he got the biggest laughs when he confessed to ignoring all of the advertising talking points his bosses presented him with. "I did read Bill Barr's four-page summary," he said. "Turns out, Les Moonves? Totally exonerated! I did not see that coming." (Moonves got a standing ovation on that very stage a year earlier, before he was felled by a mountain of accusations of sexual misconduct and assault. If there was a bigger laugh during the presentation, it came from Colbert's time slot neighbor James Corden. "I'm gonna wrap it up now," he said, after a few moments onstage. "I want to go in the lobby and get a picture with the cast of Murphy Brown. What? You're kidding! They went so big on it last year."

Fall Clips Draw a Noticeably Strong Reaction

Chalk it up to Carnegie acoustics or a genuinely solid crop of trailers, but CBS' new fall offerings — three comedies and two dramas — each seemed to play well in the room. The trailer for the single-camera effort The Unicorn drew nearly a dozen blasts of laughter in the big room and received strong applause when the cast, led by a teary-eyed Walton Goggins, came out onstage. Patricia Heaton's more traditional sitcom, Carol's Second Act, seemed to play just as well — as did Lorre's new effort, Bob Hearts Abishola. The network's biggest gamble, however, is the dark and serialized Evil. From Michelle and Robert King, the horror-esque spin on a procedural seemed to captivate many in the crowd who also bestowed upon it a strong round of applause. 

The New News Team Plans on Sticking Around

CBS News president Susan Zirinsky bounded onto the stage wearing a black and white Channel jacket and an ear-to-ear grin. It was her first big appearance since taking the troubled division's reins in January. Zirinsky invoked the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall; for her it was via the CBS News Washington bureau, where she started more than 40 years ago as a desk assistant. “That’s one hell of a journey,” she said. Zirinsky reassured advertisers that it’s a new day at CBS News: “We have the right people in the right places, and the entire news organization feels energized.” She then introduced those people: a new CBS This Morning team of Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil; and Norah O’Donnell, who will begin anchoring the CBS Evening News this summer. “This is a very big moment for CBS This Morning,” said King. O’Donnell called Zirinsky a “transformative figure” at the news division, which for nearly the two years previous had been buffeted by a series of missteps and scandals. 

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