CBS at TCA: The number one network faces a less certain future with Halle Berry's alien baby and robot son

CBS at TCA: The number one network faces a less certain future with Halle Berry's alien baby and robot son

When thinking about the television advertiser landscape in this modern era, Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, likes to cite the musical Damn Yankees, but with a twist to reflect her boss, Les Moonves. “Whatever Leslie wants, Leslie gets,” she told the journalists assembled for her Television Critics Association winter press tour executive session, and while she was making a joke, there was a ring of truth to it. Even a few years ago, CBS was the last network to brag about DVR reach or the number of people who streamed its shows, and it seemed a bit standoffish about the idea of appealing to advertisers about counting some of those numbers when it came time to assign ad rates. Sure, it would do it, but only kind of half-heartedly, because what really mattered were all of those people who were watching CBS live, either because they liked its programming or hadn’t yet figured out how to operate a remote control.

In recent years, though, that’s changed. The question Tassler answered was one talking about the new live+30 metric that Fox is pushing to show how many people its shows reach over the course of roughly one month. Where in past years Tassler might have shaken her head and said something like, “Whatever Kevin Reilly needs to do for his business is up to him,” the clear subtext being, “CBS gets more viewers in a minute than Fox gets in a whole month,” she now said that CBS and Moonves were pushing advertisers to recognize all sorts of viewers, no matter when they watched. When Moonves suddenly started pushing hard for increased recognition of DVR viewers last year, it was seen as a sea change in relations between the TV industry and their advertisers, and it certainly seems to have led to an increased acceptance of the idea that people watch TV whenever they want now—and are at least subconsciously absorbing the ads, even when they fast-forward past them. Now, however, even CBS seems to be tentatively getting on board with the idea that a viewer is a viewer is a viewer, whether they watch the night the program airs or years later. Indeed, Tassler opened by talking about how The Good Wife’s ratings are up—but she pointedly didn’t mention live viewership, instead pointing out DVR viewers and all of the people catching up with past seasons on Amazon.

To be fair, some of this is probably just CBS, like a cat playing with a mouse, wanting to show off how much most of its programming dwarfs that on the other networks in terms of total viewers, no matter how or when you want to count those viewers. But the implication is clear: CBS is still led, first and foremost, by its massive live viewership—still the biggest overall audience on TV by what Tassler dubs a “wide margin” (though not as wide as it used to be)—but it also has all of these other viewers hitched onto the boat, waterskiing behind. In other words, if Fox sees itself as a TV network in the year 2020, less a live, collective viewing experience than a collection of programs with a certain brand that you’ll get to eventually, then CBS seems like it sees itself as a network in, say, 2008. DVRs are here to stay, and there are plenty of DVR viewers, but maybe you should watch live all the same, right? (Indeed, in a later panel, one of the producers for Intelligence, which is struggling in the ratings, said he hoped that people would watch his show live… and then maybe a few others on their recordings.) That’s reflected in the networks’ respective positions on pilot season: Fox wants to kill it; CBS defends it vigorously as a creative process that gains something intangible from its urgency.

CBS has actually struggled a bit this season, particularly on Mondays, where its once indomitable comedy bloc has slowly seen itself fizzle in the wake of Big Bang Theory and Two And A Half Men moving to Thursdays over the past several seasons. With How I Met Your Mother ending in March, the network will be losing its biggest hit on the night, with no clear plan for a successor. (The current successor, Friends With Better Lives, is not going to be a long-term solution, given how bland it is.) The 10 p.m. hour has also been a slight problem across the board for the network. Person Of Interest has stabilized on Tuesdays, and Elementary is doing better for itself. But Hostages was a disaster, and Intelligence posted a 1.2 in the demo on Monday, the sort of number CBS just never sees. CSI is hanging in there on Wednesdays, but it’s clearly on its last legs, and football overruns continue to screw with Sunday nights, where The Mentalist also seems to be far closer to the end of its run than the beginning. While that’s not a lot of problem timeslots, particularly when compared to, y’know, any other network, it’s more than CBS is used to having, which makes this an interesting time for the network to start talking about how much it loves you watching its shows on your DVR.

Obscured in all of this is that the CBS of old is slowly going away. The network that built its current dominance on the back of 10 million indistinguishable crime procedurals has given way to one where three of its dramas—Good Wife, Person Of Interest, and Elementary—can make very eloquent cases for their own worthiness as broadcast TV’s best and where Big Bang Theory regularly pops up at awards shows because it’s well-liked both by the public and within the industry. Add to that a show like Mom, which genuinely takes chances with the CBS/Chuck Lorre formula (though not all of them pay off), and you have a network that really does seem to be trying to diversify and move past the stuff that’s always worked. CBS isn’t quite as adventurous as, say, Fox, but it’s moved well past NBC (trying to recreate 1997 through science or magic) and ABC (a disaster zone) in terms of coming up with quality programming within the niches it best appeals to.

And even those niches are broadening. Under The Dome was awful, but it was a huge hit for the network, and it’s emboldened CBS to take chances on more “limited series” or “miniseries” or “event stories” (the latest confusing moniker Tassler added to the list this morning). When CBS does a “limited series,” it means something very different from every other network—leading to all that Under The Dome confusion—in that it just means it’s going to place an order of less than 22 episodes, an order consciously designed to run out in 13- or 15-episode chunks but still provide for a show that can return for years to come. Though Hostages backfired in this regard, CBS is dedicated to providing this sort of programming at least for a little while. Indeed, the network is going all in on an adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, a novel about the story of Masada, which would seem to suggest there will be no way to extend this story past an initial order (though if anyone’s going to try, it will be CBS).

All of which brings us to Extant, sort of the perfect culmination of everything that’s up with CBS. It combines several of the things CBS is all about right now—a big star (Halle Berry) as the lead, a big-name producer in Steven Spielberg, a shorter order, a big budget, supplementing that budget by partnering with a streaming service—with a premise that would never, under any circumstances, make someone say, “Oh, that’s so CBS!” See, Extant is about Halle Berry going to space for a one-year mission, then returning to find out she’s pregnant with a miracle alien baby that may herald the first wave of an invasion of Earth. But wait! There’s more! Previously unable to have children naturally, the astronaut’s husband built for her an android son, whose existence is threatened by the presence of this alien baby. So, y’know, it’s sort of like NCIS: Alien Baby And Android Son. (Extant, by the way, debuts Wednesday, July 2, following up the second season premiere of Under The Dome on Monday, June 30.)

That’s the crossroads CBS finds itself at. It’s no longer simply enough to overwhelm people with live viewership, because live viewers are dwindling away. But to stay in the business it’s in, the network needs to keep pushing toward the mass audience and hoping enough of them come along to underwrite expensive Halle Berry star vehicles. It’s probably an unsustainable position—as every other network learned in 2008—but CBS has been so big for so long that it can afford to stay that big for just a while longer. The question has always been how it will handle the inevitable crash, and by hedging its bets, CBS seems to have something of an idea of how to navigate the road ahead.

Some other CBS news:

  • Lots of time in Tassler’s session was dominated by news of Big Brother, which you probably don’t care about but I should summarize anyway. Basically, the giant controversy that erupted last season over racist comments made by some of the housemates hasn’t led to any concrete changes in how the network casts the show. Tassler praised the producers’ handling of the controversy as responsible (in that the comments only showed up on the program once they affected its story directly, which was sort of the point of the controversy in the first place, but I digress), but she also said that the show is a “social experiment” and, thus, is probably just going to have some racist dumbasses on it every once in a while. Which seems fair. (As my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg said to me after the session, at the very least, that season of Big Brother underlined how easy it is for some people to simply be casually racist in just about any setting.)
  • CBS has renewed its entire daytime lineup, so you Price Is Right fans can start jumping around like you spun and landed on 100.
  • There was very little HIMYM talk, though Tassler did mention, somewhat cryptically, “the spinoff,” which has yet to get anything like an official pickup but seems likely to do so, particularly if Friends With Better Lives falls off the face of the Earth.
  • The new Vince Gilligan-created, David Shore-produced Battle Creek has a 13-episode order, but it won’t necessarily be a limited series, particularly if it pops. Just speculating, but as a cop drama, it seems like it’s built for the long haul, but it’s also possible CBS will use its cable pedigree to try to turn it into more of an event than it normally would be. (Tassler briefly acted like, having bought the script for Battle Creek in 2002, she had just discovered the script laying around her office last year. One imagines her saying, “Hey! Who’s this Vince Gilligan kid? He’s good!”)
  • The one major renewal in doubt for next season: Two And A Half Men. Tassler would like to see another season, but it’s also old enough, expensive enough, and slouching in the ratings enough that it would be entirely possible to see it go away after this season.
  • Somewhat atypically, CBS had no renewal news or even hints, though I think fans of the program should read it as a good sign that Tassler wanted to play up the successes of The Good Wife on other platforms.
  • Everybody on CBS sure seems jealous of the success of The Blacklist, which is the least surprising thing ever.