CBS wants to push the envelope

Unconventional series added to sked heavy on crime

CBS is rolling the dice on a casino-based musical mystery and several other unconventional series it unveiled Wednesday, with the intent to shake up the network's stodgy sensibility.

"Viva Laughlin," a drama that features gamblers belting out pop tunes, is just one example of how CBS wants to draw outside the chalk lines of a schedule already stocked with crime procedurals, albeit shows comprising the industry's most stable lineup. Other edgy dramas come in the form of "Cane," a "Scarface"-esque epic starring Jimmy Smits, and "Moonlight," a Joel Silver production featuring a lovelorn vampire detective.

"Our strong, solid schedule allows us to push the envelope next fall," CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves said at the opening of the network's upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall.

The entire presentation was a relatively slim 75 minutes, with none of the elaborately pretaped skits Madison Avenue has come to expect from CBS.

Some comic relief came from customized video snippets featuring the melodramatic line readings of "CSI: Miami" star David Caruso. He set up scheduling announcements with howlers like, "Monday's so bright you gotta wear shades," before walking out onstage, joining CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler.

Five new series — four dramas and a comedy — will join CBS' schedule in the fall, with at least two more slated for midseason.

Like NBC, CBS opted not to open a second comedy night, adding its sole new half-hour series, "The Big Bang Theory," to the network's established comedy block at 8:30 p.m. Monday, sandwiched between "How I Met Your Mother" and "Two and a Half Men." However, the network is still considering single-camera pilots "I'm in Hell" and "The Captain" for midseason.

The most-talked-about CBS program next season might come on the unscripted side: "Kid Nation," a new franchise in which 40 children ages 8-15 spend 40 days without their parents trying to organize their own society in an abandoned ghost town. The series is being slotted in the 8 p.m. Wednesday slot left open by "Jericho," a first-year drama CBS has opted not to bring back.

An even more provocative series is being held over for midseason: "Swingtown," a 1970s-era drama originally intended for cable that will depict swinging couples. Also returning midseason are "The Amazing Race" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

At a news conference Wednesday, Tassler noted that her top priority in development this year was to bring in cutting-edge new programming designed to garner the buzz advertisers have criticized the network for lacking. But even as she made pilots like "Laughlin" — based on the BBC series "Viva Blackpool!" — she said there was plenty of skepticism in creative circles that CBS would actually follow through on its mandate.

"Everyone looked at us cross-eyed and said, 'You're not really going to put this on the schedule?' " Tassler said of "Laughlin," which is scheduled for 8 p.m. Sunday and counts Hugh Jackman as executive producer. Jackman made an appearance at the CBS presentation live via satellite from the set of Baz Luhrmann's film "Australia."

Even CBS' deep roster of returning series will see a shake-up next season, with veteran drama "Without a Trace" returning to bolster the eye's Thursday lineup at 10 p.m. Renewed drama "Shark" will move from Thursday to "Trace's" previous 10 p.m. Sunday slot.

"This is a tough night where we were down a little bit," CBS senior executive vp Kelly Kahl said of Thursday, a crucial night for advertising revenue. "This puts us back in the plus column next year."

Tassler noted that CBS faced a tough decision holding back "Christine," which earned star Julia Louis Dreyfus an Emmy last year. "But when we looked at the time period and at the numbers 'Rules of Engagement' delivered, you can't run away from that," she said.

CBS execs emphasized that they are protecting all of the new additions to the schedule by putting them behind established shows, a pointed contrast to multiple hours of new programming competitors ABC and NBC are attempting on select nights. "We're not just throwing things up on the wall and seeing what sticks," Kahl said.

Joining "Jericho" on the scrap heap is fellow rookie "The Class" and the sophomore drama "Close to Home," which loses its 9 p.m. Friday slot to "Moonlight."

CBS also announced Wednesday the addition of a summer game show, "Power of 10," hosted by Drew Carey.

In a departure from standard upfront procedure, at its presentation CBS also gave the stage to its digital media guru, Quincy Smith, for a few minutes to tout that unit's increasing roster of interactive applications, including a sneak peek of CBS' presence on Joost. "This is not going to be your mother's CBS," he said.

To complete the digital flavor, the presentation featured a pitch from a virtual version of CBS sales chief JoAnn Ross.

The CBS fare generally was well received by the buying community.

Shows particularly singled out were "Swingtown" and "Cane." And there was strong applause for "Kid Nation," which had just wrapped production, according to CBS execs.

Carat's Shari Anne Brill said she thought the switch of "Shark" and "Trace" was a smart move.

" 'Shark' wasn't competing in the adults 18-49 demographic against 'ER,' " Brill said. " 'Without a Trace' was able to defeat it in many instances" when it competed against "ER" last season.

She also wasn't surprised by the nonrenewal of fan favorite "Jericho," which had returned after a long hiatus to much poorer numbers.

"I think when you're gone, you're forgotten," Brill said. "Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder. Audiences are fickle."