CBS at the TCA press tour: Nina Tassler could crush your puny network like a bug
Really, CBS president Nina Tassler should come out at the Television Critics Association press tour one of these years carrying a leaf blower and a giant bag of money. Then, she should have a page shake the money out of the bag as she uses the leaf blower to send it flying out over the heads of the assembled crowd, all the while cackling madly and shouting, “I do this because I can, motherfuckers!” While that’s unlikely to happen, it’s often the subtext of every single executive session Tassler hosts. CBS is hugely successful in almost every way, and even its flops are bigger than the stuff most other networks come up with. (There are rare exceptions—like the new dating show 3, which has ratings even NBC would sneer at—but CBS mostly sweeps those under a rug and pretends they don’t exist.) Most executive sessions involve Tassler saying, “Hey, we’re doing great!” a bunch of times, and the rest of us having to concede her point.
Tassler opened today’s session by bragging about how the network is number one in total viewers, upfront sales, and Emmy nominations (at least among the five broadcast networks; it still loses to HBO), saying that more viewers turn to CBS for higher quality programs. A lot of TV fans would quibble with that assessment (and I certainly would), but at the same time, CBS’ success stems almost entirely from making shows that rarely slump below a C and rarely rise above a B. Anything above a B would contain the kinds of personal quirks and challenging elements critics love but mainstream audiences dislike, and anything below a C is too risky, too potentially alienating to an audience. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but they’re often exceptions where CBS seemed to think it was buying one thing and got something else entirely (see also: 2 Broke Girls). Yet even those shows have a tendency to become massive, massive hits.
CBS is bland, yes, but it’s also fairly consistent in its niche. Unlike the other four broadcast networks, you almost always know what you’re going to get when you turn on CBS. Even this year, when the network is debuting two, new, fairly risky (for CBS) drama pilots, those pilots fit ably inside the CBS profile. Vegas may contain period elements of Mad Men or Crime Story, but it also follows a fairly straightforward crime procedural storyline, allowing for most of its differences to come from pacing (which is slower and more contemplative than, say, NCIS), casting (which is full of stars), and direction (which is gorgeous). Elementary may be a very CBS take on the Sherlock Holmes character, but it’s also much more character-based than your average CBS procedural (and somehow finds a way to be surprisingly different from the BBC’s Sherlock, which has become wildly popular on PBS). Where other networks crow about trying to find cable-esque shows to put on broadcast airwaves, CBS continues to look for CBS shows, then smuggle cable-esque elements into them. This rarely makes for essential television, but it makes for comforting television, as anyone who’s gotten caught up in an NCIS marathon with their mom can attest. (Hey, we all have.) If ABC is trying to exist in 1999, CBS has managed to open a door to an era when people would leave their TV on a network all day long, simply through the relentlessness of its branding.
All of which is a longwinded way of saying that Tassler didn’t have much to say, simply because there never is much to say. She defended the network’s reluctance to put its shows up online as “strategic,” since it’s largely a way to keep the network’s broadcast fortunes floating along. She made a brief, brief crack about advertisers’ insistence on targeting the 18-49-year-old demographic, saying CBS was doing just fine targeting the older 25-54-year-old demographic and still finding that plenty of 18-49-year-olds were coming along. (After all, 2 Broke Girls was the number one new show of last season in both total viewers and the demo, and by a substantial margin.) She bragged about how the network has now had three consecutive years in which a show—NCIS: Los Angeles, Hawaii Five-0, 2 Broke Girls—has been sold into syndication before its second season even began (a huge moneymaker for those show’s production studios, which subsequently have even better reason to work with CBS).
The few times a reason the network has to be slightly-less-than-proud came up, Tassler brushed them off. CSI: Miami was canceled because it didn’t “flow” as well in its night as CSI: New York did in its night. 3 was a flop because it’s so hard to launch reality nowadays, without a big, buzzy headline, but, hey, look at how well Big Brother is doing! (And this is a network that grew to where it is almost entirely because of a reality show: Survivor.) CBS’ Sunday shows may be completely destroyed by football overruns, creating situations where series like The Good Wife (the jewel in CBS’ crown in terms of quality) can be pushed back as much as an hour, leaving viewers with no sense of when they might start. But CBS understands. It knows why people get upset at these overruns, and it’s working on a solution to the problem, which will probably use a text-messaging system the network is developing, which will allow it to send viewers a text, letting them know The Good Wife will start at 9:30, instead of 9 p.m.
At a certain point, however, you realize that the biggest concern CBS has is that some of its shows start late, and it needs to figure out a way to let people know when those shows are starting. When you consider the borderline existential despair of NBC, the absolute need to make sure the X Factor and American Idol machines keep rolling along over at Fox, and ABC’s perpetual inability to rise above third, no matter how hard it tries, then CBS starts to seem even more impressive. Look: I don’t love a lot of shows on CBS. I don’t watch a lot of shows on CBS. But it’s hard not to respect the way the network has utterly made the broadcast television landscape its own personal playground. Which brings me back to that bag of money and that leaf blower. I mean, Tassler might as well. It’s the subtext already.