CBS has been the most-watched broadcast network in the United States for 11 of the past 12 years. None too coincidentally, that time span reaches back through the early years of TV’s two biggest scripted programs, The Big Bang Theory and NCIS. Of the other two CBS properties joining Big Bang and NCIS in the top 10 of 2013-14’s most-watched series, the youngest, Blue Bloods, is entering its fifth season. (Yes, Blue Bloods came in at No. 10, which is why the show will prompt reactions like “That’s still on?” for at least three or four more years.) CBS is in the longevity business—14-year-old CSI is still a top 20 show—which is why the network isn’t presenting much in the way of new programming at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
“When we are building shows and the creative infrastructure of the show, we’re having conversations about the longevity,” CBS Entertainment chair Nina Tassler told the TCA today. “Does this show have the creative bones to go into the 15 years that a CSI can go? Can something expand to the global dominance of an NCIS?” Tassler also emphasized that her network remains invested in broadcasting in the most literal sense, appealing to the widest spectrum of viewers while its competitors (like ABC) have found success with more specialized programming, and others (like NBC) have disastrous, monkey-laden attempts at broad-appeal shows in their recent past. Developing perpetual-motion machines like NCIS has paid off for CBS, but it’s failed to get anything off the ground in any meaningful sense the past few falls. Perhaps that’s why Tassler reiterated that CBS has weaned itself off of referring to “midseason” schedules; TV happens year-round now, and CBS’ two big breakouts of the past two years, Extant and Under The Dome, debuted during the summer, not the fall.
But there’s a trade-off to keeping a show on the air that long, and it’s the eventual, inevitable flattening out of whatever appeal Tassler and her colleagues saw in the first place. “Flat” is a term that can be applied to a lot of the shows coming before the TCA this tour; “bland” and “blah” are terms that are coming up a lot in conversations between critics. So what is CBS, long the standard-bearer of quality in American broadcast television, sacrificing to keep these shows vital and popular for so long? Tassler brought up the network’s current creative/commercial crown jewel, The Good Wife (which she’s “pissed” wasn’t nominated for a Best Drama Emmy), but judging by CBS’ drama pickups this season—Madame Secretary, Battle Creek, Stalker, Scorpion—that show isn’t really setting the tone for CBS in 2014. (The bad-guy-hunting focus of Stalker and the goofball techno-thriller aspects of Scorpion only make it odder that Tassler made no mention of Person Of Interest, which is more watched than and just as distinct as The Good Wife.)
The network will go out of the TCAs and into the fall with what might be the most beloved and most reviled drama pilots of the year, with Vince Gilligan’s Battle Creek exemplifying its creator’s spark and wit and weirdness, and Stalker giving Kevin Williamson the opportunity to stage more stabbings. Where it could really use some help, however, is in the comedy department, where the hits (Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men) aren’t getting any younger, and the newer shows (The Millers, 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly) aren’t the success stories they looked like out of the gate. The temporary saving grace of the network’s strong but unstable Thursday lineup will be Thursday Night Football, CBS’ attempt to capitalize on the biggest star in network primetime: the NFL. Thursday Night Football will bring the press tour dais most likely to buy and sell the Beverly Hilton—including CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell—if you’re looking for any indication of how important this franchise is to the network. (Any indication beyond the billions and billion of dollars it paid to telecast eight NFL match-ups, that is.)
With a built-in audience and a fair shot at lasting 15 seasons (and beyond), Thursday Night Football conforms to most of the ideals Tassler discussed in her TCA session. (As an added bonus, only eight installments are scheduled for the fall, so CBS can play into a TCA trend of dubiously designated “event series.”) It’s the biggest story of the fall TV season that no TV-related outlet will wind up talking about, which only makes it more appropriate for CBS. If Blue Bloods proves anything, the network is used to that sort of thing.
Stay tuned to The A.V. Club for more updates from the Television Critics Association summer press tour, which lasts through July 23. And be sure to follow TV Clubbers Erik Adams, Sonia Saraiya, Myles McNutt, and Will Harris for up-to-the minute commentary on Twitter.