CBS Upfront: Colbert Shines, Moonves Snarks and 'Star Trek' (Finally) Shares Some Footage

Stephen Colbert_CBS Upfront - Publicity - H 2017
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

The CBS chairman and CEO pokes fun at Bill O'Reilly and 'American Idol,' pushing his news and digital divisions alongside the most-watched net's new shows.

Late Show host Stephen Colbert is back to golden boy status at CBS.

The comedian, who barely got a mention at last year's upfront presentation, was the main attraction Wednesday at the network's 90-minute media buyer confab. After belting out a tune about CBS' most-watched status in a tux and top hat, Colbert grabbed the mic and began riffing on the man who has played the most significant role in the Late Show's stunning ratings turnaround: Donald Trump. At one point, Colbert suggested there was only one word to describe the current president: "But," he joked, "the FCC has asked me not to use it anymore."

CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves came out next, and rather than focus too much on his network's primetime performance — down 22 percent in the demo — he, too, used the Manhattan stage to tout Colbert's 15-week winning streak with total viewers. "Stephen Colbert and The Late Show are killing it," the famously competitive chief began, before adding to laughs, "If you think I love Stephen more now that he's winning, you are right."

The Late Late Show's James Corden, the star of last year's upfront, appeared later in the presentation. He lobbed a few jokes, announced that he'd be back to host the Grammys and reminded those seated before him that he, too, was winning a war of buzz, if not one of ratings.

The remainder of CBS' time before the buyers was filled out by a gaggle of stars who stepped in for a still-recovering CBS entertainment president Glenn Geller and introduced the latest batch of shows. Of all of them, The Big Bang Theory prequel Young Sheldon generated the biggest response. Later, CBS' longtime scheduler Kelly Kahl predicted that it, combined with lead-in Big Bang, would be the network's biggest performer.

Here are the highlights:

Moonves Has No Shortage of Snark for the Competition (or Demos)
Moonves took the stage to remind media buyers of his “content is king” mantra. But he also acknowledged the rapidly changing media environment, which requires a nimble approach to measurement. "As viewing habits evolve,” he said, “it’s time to move beyond generic demographics. The old idea of just one coveted demographic is so dated, you know, like American Idol." He also singled out Colbert, who went virtually unmentioned at last year’s upfront, due to his disappointing start on Late Show. Noting that Late Show has gained more than a million new viewers (“and three new lawyers”) to become the most-watched program in late night, Moonves quipped: “If you think I love Stephen more now because he’s No. 1, you’re right. Who would have thought that Stephen Colbert would be No. 1 and Bill O’Reilly would be doing a podcast in his underwear."

Star Trek (and All Access) Get the Main Stage
Broadcast presentations are now more and more about things airing on other parent company properties, so reboot Star Trek: Discovery — and its future home, CBS All Access — got one of the bigger platforms during the Carnegie Hall shill. Star Sonequa Martin-Green, on the heels of a first-time appearance from CBS Interactive topper Marc DeBevoise, came out to introduce the first footage. It looks expensive, or at least more expensive than typical broadcast science-fiction fare, but it wasn't clear if the warm reception was for the show — or for Corden, who trotted out onstage in Spock ears as soon as it ended. "I'm sure people are going to love it," he said. "Star Trek fans aren't at all particular."

Digital Digs Continue
Ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross delivered a brief presentation almost completely devoid of pie charts and impenetrable data — echoing the approach taken by other ad sales chiefs this week. She hammered CBS’ status as the most-watched network for 14 of the past 15 seasons with more top 20 programs than any other network, and in doing so took a swipe at the competitors’ spin. "CBS is once again America’s most-watched network,” Ross said. “In a world of alternative facts where up is down and down is up, more people watch CBS than any other network.” Like her peers at Fox, NBC and ABC, she also stressed the quality environment of broadcast television versus online competitors. “Data plus eyeballs is a combination that works — and we’re talking human eyeballs, by the way," she asserted. "Real people watching your commercials with no fraud.”

News and Late Night Get an Equally Timely Push
No fake news at CBS. In his longer-than-usual pitch for the news division, Moonves praised his properties as having the "highest quality" and being the "most accurate." The CBS This Morning trio came out to talk about their rising ratings and relative lack of fluff. ("They know it's the most important place for intelligent conversation in the morning," Gayle King said of their guests and, indirectly, their viewers.) The 50th anniversary season of 60 Minutes also looks to be getting a big push, with Moonves and Kahl separately calling out the addition of contributor Oprah Winfrey as a reason to watch. "Good luck, Megyn Kelly," Kahl said of the NBC newcomer.