CBS at the TCA winter press tour: Numbers don’t have your back
Nina Tassler doesn’t have to answer questions from the Television Critics Association. Given the success of the network under her guidance, her twice yearly addresses to the TCA could be retrofitted into half-hour rhythmic gymnastics routines, with Tassler twirling a ribbon bearing the bonkers Nielsen numbers for her stable of ratings hits. She wouldn’t even have to be that ambitious: She could just start spouting streams of raw data. “Why did you choose to schedule Elementary after the Super Bowl?” “11.48 million viewers live plus same day—and 3 million more online” “Why push for a ninth season of How I Met Your Mother?” “Because four of the top five network comedies air on CBS.” “How is The Big Bang Theory still growing its audience six years into its run?” “11.4 million viewers in syndication.”
But numbers could ultimately betray Tassler, too. In terms of audience size, hers is still the No. 1 network, but NBC snagged the coveted 18 to 49 crown last fall. And that’s no fluke: CBS shows have big audiences because they’re the types of shows that appeal to the later years on that spectrum—multi-camera sitcoms and procedural crime series—and older viewers are the ones who still watch the majority of their TV on a television. And as those viewers age, they’re not being replaced by new audience members. And that’s not helpful from a financial perspective: Tassler acknowledged Elementary’s strong following on streaming services, with the caveat that sponsors don’t want to pony up as much to advertise on cbs.com as they do for a spot on CBS proper. And so it pays—in more way than one—for Tassler to cite CBS’ status as the top network for adults 25 to 54.
And then there’s the matter of the age of Tassler’s biggest hits: Young guns like Elementary, Person Of Interest, and Hawaii 5-0 show a deft hand for developing dramas to eventually step in for ripening franchises like CSI and NCIS, but Partners obviously wasn’t prepared to step in once How I Met Your Mother’s unnaturally lengthened existence comes to an end. And so Tassler made a case for an 11th year of Two And A Half Men and alluded to ongoing negotiations for more How I Met Your Mother.
Speaking from the corridors of power her network’s current position afford her, Tassler set most of her session in the present or the not-too-distant future. On the horizon—but far from the point in its development process when it could receive a full presentation at press tour—the Stephen King adaptation Under The Dome provided the segue between Tassler’s prepared remarks and her Q&A with the critics. Person Of Interest has proven that a sizable portion of the Tiffany Network’s audience is willing to go in for high-concept genre fare—13 episodes of King filtered through the end-times POV of Y: The Last Man creator Brian K. Vaughan will be the ultimate test of that appetite. In one of the more curious turns of her session, Tassler likened the series to Jericho, a costly misstep for CBS during its reign at the top of the network heap. Names like King and Vaughan (not to mention Steven Spielberg, connected to the project through his Amblin Television imprint) promise a broad base of viewer curiosity for Under The Dome—though the enthusiasm in the ballroom for concept art seemingly sketched by Vaughan suggest that the project might work better as a graphic novel.
But if Under The Dome was destined for life in such a niche medium, it wouldn’t be of interest to Tassler and CBS. Their Under The Dome has to be a massive hit, because even as the broadcast outlets scramble for a piece of an rapidly shrinking pie, CBS’ model only works if its slice of that pie is the biggest. (You don’t fork out so much money to Jon Cryer if you can’t subsidize it with multiple Nielsen successes.) Though, the timing of Under The Dome’s debut—June 24—and the size of its episode order imply that Tassler have their eyes on the dessert AMC, HBO, Showtime, and others have gleefully gobbled down in recent summers. For a broadcast outlet as numbers-obsessed as CBS, it no longer makes sense to ignore or marginalize three months on the schedule. When Tassler next appears in front of TCA members, she’ll have the stats for Under The Dome at her fingertips. And they’ll determine whether or not we’ll see anything more like Under The Dome—or if NCIS is the horse we’ll be riding into the broadcast TV apocalypse.