Fall schedule analysis: CBS has mildly bad year, starts blowing things up for no real reason

Fall schedule analysis: CBS has mildly bad year, starts blowing things up for no real reason

Kevin Williamson PRESENTS Dylan McDermott IS STALKER. (Also, Maggie Q is in this?!) (CBS)
Kevin Williamson PRESENTS Dylan McDermott IS STALKER. (Also, Maggie Q is in this?!) (CBS)

One of the biggest stories this upfront season has been NBC abandoning its traditional comedy bloc on Thursday nights. Though the network tried something very similar in the ‘00s after the success of The Apprentice (which took over the 9 p.m. hour for a couple of seasons), it’s become such a staple of the way we think about the network’s identity that there was a fair amount of sadness about it. Hell, there was even a fair amount of sadness for the death of Fox’s Animation Domination, and that, as a brand, has only existed for nine years. Before that, it was incredibly common for Fox to blend animation with live-action comedies, as it will next fall.

Yet the death of TV’s longest-running comedy bloc seems to be passing without a peep. CBS has aired four sitcoms in the first two hours of Monday night since the fall of 1986, when Kate & Allie, My Sister Sam, Newhart, and Designing Women made up the lineup. The last time a drama aired in the first two hours of Monday night on CBS, it was on the 1985-85 schedule, and it was Scarecrow And Mrs. King. That’s how long the network has had this bloc around. And before you say that there’s less sadness because CBS’ sitcoms suck, consider that this is a bloc that’s included, at various times, such shows as the aforementioned Newhart and Designing Women, Murphy Brown (Best Comedy Series Emmy winner twice), Everybody Loves Raymond (also a two-time winner), the underrated King Of Queens, the early years of The Big Bang Theory, and How I Met Your Mother. No, none of these shows are as important to TV history as Cheers or Seinfeld, but they’re still good shows, and with the exception of King Of Queens, they all received Comedy Series Emmy nominations. (One that did that I didn’t list: Two And A Half Men, because what am I, a sadist?) Or just consider the placement of a drama at 9. CBS has had comedies at 9 p.m. on Mondays since the 1950s, as Ken Hommel points out to me on Twitter. That’s probably the longest single consistent use of an hour in TV history.

Maybe blowing up the Monday comedy bloc is the right thing. I tend to give CBS scheduling moves the benefit of the doubt nowadays, because the network’s programmers are so good at what they do. But there’s just a tiny whiff of panic coming off of this schedule, as if CBS had a season when it wasn’t the undisputed champion of everything (even though it still won in total viewers) and then started freaking out. It’s like the kid who only gets A’s getting a B. Don’t worry, CBS! You’ll still get into Harvard!

Let’s all panic together by looking at this night by night.

Mondays
8 p.m.: The Big Bang Theory (2 Broke Girls after football)
8:30 p.m.: Mom
9 p.m.: SCORPION
10 p.m.: NCIS: Los Angeles

The reason I mention CBS “panicking,” when the network would probably rather I tell you that they’re making strategic decisions for the future, is because above all else, CBS prides itself on its stability. There have been four comedies on Monday since the ‘80s, as mentioned, and there are whole nights when the network won’t change a thing for season after season after season. It makes CBS a bit dull, but it’s also why the network has seen such success and such loyalty from its viewers. (Think about this: CBS puts out a magazine that’s all about CBS shows, and it is apparently quite popular. Somebody’s reading it.) 

Now, Mondays have struggled this season, due to the collapse of 2 Broke Girls and the network’s inability to find a suitable replacement for How I Met Your Mother. But that’s the sort of point at which CBS would retrench and find some pieces that would help it rebuild. (It faced a similar crisis on the night in the mid-90s, when Murphy Brown started to slide and Cosby never caught fire. And that’s when it found Everybody Loves Raymond, languishing on Friday nights, and turned it into a super-hit.) On the flipside of that, it’s been obvious for a while now that CBS was going to give up one of its four hours of comedy. Clearly, the network has had trouble scheduling and promoting four at once, and with the network passing on How I Met Your Dad (though I expect somebody else to pick it up), it would have had no fill-ins for later in the season.

The smart money was always on Thursday, where the network had limited success with its 9 p.m. hour. That would allow it to consolidate some of its stronger shows from that side of things over on Mondays, perhaps by moving Two And A Half Men back for a last season that would be promoted as such. But then things got complicated because both Scandal and The Blacklist moved into the 9 p.m. hour, making launching a new drama there essentially impossible. The network could have tried a drama at 8 and Big Bang Theory at 9, or even tossed one of its reality stalwarts at 8, followed by a comedy hour. But that would have proved a little too risky for the network.

So instead, we have… this. Which could work, admittedly, because this is CBS. But it seems to combine the worst of all possible worlds, particularly once Big Bang heads back to Thursdays in November. Having TV’s biggest scripted show on the night will undoubtedly help for the six weeks or so it will be on the schedule here, but 2 Broke Girls is never going to be the hit it looked like it could be, and unless Mom really benefits from the Big Bang exposure (and hopefully it will, as it’s a good show), it seems a little stranded. CBS has high hopes for the high-testing Scorpion—about a billionaire funding a team of geniuses to stop crime—but it’s also relying on NCIS: LA being more than just a timeslot hit to keep people around and watching Scorpion after the comedies are over. NCIS: LA is going to be a substantial improvement on Hostages and Intelligence in that slot, don’t get me wrong, but this whole thing feels like a potential disaster area. If Scorpion doesn’t work or 2 Broke Girls continues to erode, everybody’s in trouble.

Tuesdays
8 p.m.: NCIS
9 p.m.: NCIS: NEW ORLEANS
10 p.m.: Person Of Interest 

Here’s what we’re talking about when it comes to CBS. Technically, there’s a new show on this lineup, but it’s NCIS: New Orleans, which already feels like it’s been running for six years (to the degree where lots of sites reporting on the lineup this morning, including this one, didn’t even list it as a new show initially). The other two-thirds of the lineup are stable and safe, and this night should work, unless the new NCIS is just impressively bad. (It won’t be.)

Wednesdays
8 p.m.: Survivor
9 p.m.: Criminal Minds
10 p.m.: STALKER

CBS was expected to move CSI, which has gotten to the point in its life where it can be used to prop up some other timeslot somewhere else far better than it can be used to hold down valuable real estate. It still pulls a solid number, so it can’t really be canceled, but it’s also old enough that it’s gotta be hugely expensive for what that number is. Thus, CBS is in the same conundrum NBC was with ER for years. I tend to think the network moved the show to the right timeslot, but I don’t know what to make of replacing it with a Kevin Williamson-created, Dylan McDermott-starring series about a stalker prevention unit. It seems like a really limited premise for a TV series, but so do most CBS crime procedurals. (Another sign CBS is mildly panicking: Look at how many of its new shows are crime procedurals. It only does that when it’s self-flagellating over a year that didn’t go as expected.) Anyway, maybe Stalker works. Lord knows Wednesdays at 10 is a wide open hour now. But it feels like a weird fit in this lineup, sight unseen.

Thursdays (9/11 through 10/23)
8 p.m.: Thursday Night Football

Thursdays (10/30 and after)

8 p.m.: The Big Bang Theory
8:30 p.m.: The Millers
9 p.m.: Two And A Half Men
9:30 p.m.: THE MCCARTHYS
10 p.m.: Elementary 

For as much as the networks—particularly NBC—have been running scared from Thursday Night Football (and for as much as they all desperately wanted it for their own lineups), I am unconvinced it is the world beater most assume it will be. Yes, it will likely be the biggest show on the night while it’s running most weeks, but I don’t think it will pull such a huge number that it will clobber the average new Big Bang Theory’s number. The Thursday night game tends to be a little lower quality, and it tends to have less important teams playing in it. Obviously, we don’t know what the NFL standings will look like right now, so we don’t know if any of these games will have particular excitement or importance attached to them. But they’re also going to be airing in September and October, when the stakes are lower. It wasn’t a mistake for CBS to pick up this package—any network should be trying to get any sports programming it can—but I can’t imagine it being a new Sunday Night or even Monday Night Football (ESPN edition). 

The post-football schedule more or less makes sense, though the 9 p.m. hour is clearly a sacrifice to the bigger, buzzier shows over on ABC and NBC, the sort of thing CBS is not accustomed to having to do. Two And A Half Men isn’t bad counter-programming against Shondaland, but it’s also the show’s last season, and this is a network that desperately needs some new comedy hits. It makes the choice to put the one new comedy on the network’s schedule up against Scandal (and The Blacklist, eventually) all the more confusing. By now, you’d think CBS would be aware The Millers is a timeslot hit and give it a chance to sink or swim at 9:30. Instead, The McCarthys is getting that slot, where it might get sampled but probably will struggle. Reading the comedy scheduling tea leaves, CBS seems to be betting everything it can on Mom. That’s the best possible option at this juncture, but if it was going to do that, why not have it and The Millers swap timeslots entirely? There’s a slight failure of nerve here that suggests second-guessing made in the wake of NBC and ABC’s big moves.

Also interesting: Elementary is staying put. The show has been softer than CBS would like, but it still does well, and it should perk up a bit without Scandal in the timeslot. CBS clearly wants this one to be a big, breakout hit, but it just hasn’t gotten the traction some of the other shows have. It’s a middling performer on a network that desperately needs something bigger.

Fridays
8 p.m.: The Amazing Race
9 p.m.: Hawaii Five-0
10 p.m.: Blue Bloods

Moving The Amazing Race here is interesting, as I assume it will give way to Undercover Boss eventually. Race is probably getting close to the end of its life cycle, something we haven’t ever had to confront with one of the broadcast networks’ handful of reality perennials, so it will be interesting to see how CBS handles the inevitable decline of the franchise. Otherwise, there’s not much to talk about here.

Saturdays
8 p.m.: Crimetime Saturday
10 p.m.: 48 Hours

Sundays
7 p.m.: 60 Minutes
8 p.m.: MADAM SECRETARY
9 p.m.: The Good Wife
10 p.m.: CSI/CSI: CYBER

The network is always going to be hurt by sports overruns on this night, and it knows it. It uses this night mostly to justify keeping The Good Wife, a low-rated show by CBS standards, alive for as long as the network wants it to run. (It stands a good shot at re-cracking the Drama Series Emmy category this year, which would be a feather in CBS’ cap.) Moving CSI to 10 is one of the better calls on this schedule. It won’t be getting big numbers in the timeslot, because of overruns, but its audience is older and more likely to stick with a program that starts super-late anyway. Plus, it will be able to have fewer repeats in the hour, thanks to the existence of CSI: Cyber, which continues to have a hilariously goofy name that sounds like it was included on a CD you got in a magazine insert. Want help getting online? Try CSI: CYBER.

The use of Madam Secretary suggests that CBS, a network fond of long-abandoned network traditions, is looking to the 8 p.m. hour on Sunday to be a home for family drama (he said, not having seen the pilot). The show makes a good pairing on paper with Good Wife, and if it’s focused slightly more on family stuff (as it seems to be on paper) than the show that leads out of it, it can be in the proud tradition of shows like Life Goes On—and probably get canceled. Or maybe it will be the CBS version of Scandal: slightly glossier and a little embarrassed by all of that “plotting.”

This schedule is free-form enough that it should allow CBS a lot of latitude come midseason. I wouldn’t be surprised by Battle Creek getting a fairly big slot, perhaps even spelling The Good Wife for a while. But there are a lot of moving pieces and adjustable parts on this schedule that can easily be swapped out for something quickly and easily. CBS will still likely be one of TV’s top two networks, and it will maintain its advantage of a strong base to build off of. But it’s also starting to look like, say, the Detroit Tigers: All of the pieces are there to win the championship, but they’re getting older and more expensive, and every year you don’t win, you get a little more desperate.

Stay right here for all of our upfronts coverage. We’ll have thoughts on the CBS trailers in the morning.

Tomorrow: The CW goes, and we take a nap.


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