Upfronts 2014: CBS starts changing with the times like everyone else
CBS had what was, by their impressive and very stable standards, a down year. Though still the most-watched network on television, the network slipped behind football and Olympics-enhanced NBC for the season among the adults 18-49 demo. "The Crazy Ones," Robin Williams' return to television was a ratings dud, and won't be back. "2 Broke Girls" regressed in the ratings this season, and the network failed to develop any other viable successors to "How I Met Your Mother." (And they also passed on the "How I Met Your Dad" pseudo-spin-off.) And its new Monday night dramas — the fairly off-brand "Hostages" and the very on-brand "Intelligence" — were both resounding failures.
As a result of those (relative) struggles, and as a result of the deal to telecast Thursday night NFL games for eight weeks starting September 11, CBS is being more experimental with its schedule than in any year I can remember of the Les Moonves regime, which goes back nearly 20 years at this point. Among the big changes:
* For the first time since the 1985-86 TV season, CBS won't have four regularly-scheduled comedies on Monday night, putting new drama "Scorpion" (which sounds like a more serious "The Big Bang Theory," with Katharine McPhee in the Penny role) at 9.
* The network's biggest hit, "The Big Bang Theory," will be mobile in the fall, moving back to its old Monday at 8 timeslot for the first few weeks of the season because of football, then moving back to Thursdays at 8 starting October 30.
* That late start for the other Thursday shows means they won't be airing many repeats this year, even though CBS is the one network in recent years that still did well with repeats. Instead, the plan is (with the exception of the real goliaths like "Big Bang" and "NCIS") to avoid reruns wherever possible, and to keep plugging in new series as the season moves along.
* Just as FOX claims that it has killed the idea of pilot season, CBS president Nina Tassler says, "We are officially retiring the term 'mid-season.' We no longer have mid-season. We have summer, we have fall, we have spring, we roll out our shows all year long." Last summer's hit "Under the Dome" is back soon, along with Halle Berry in the new sci-fi drama "Extant," and CBS is saving some of its more prominent new and returning series — including Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon in an "Odd Couple" remake, Patricia Arquette in "CSI: Cyber," the Vince Gilligan-created "Battle Creek," plus "Mike & Molly," "The Mentalist" and "Undercover Boss" — for later in the year. Of those, only "CSI: Cyber" already has a spot on the schedule, where it'll take over for "CSI" Coke Classic on Sundays at 10 sometime in 2015.
* "Two and a Half Men," one of CBS' longest-running hits ever (and one of its more expensive current shows), will be going into its final season, joining a flood of veteran shows ("Boardwalk Empire," "Parks and Recreation," "Mad Men," "Justified," "Parenthood," "Glee," "Cougar Town," among others) that will enter next season with everyone knowing it will be their last.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, doing his usual warm-up act for Tassler and scheduling chief Kelly Kahl, said, "This is obviously a time of phenomenal change in our business." Until recently, CBS had been able to stand against that particular tide. But they're shifting almost as much as everyone else at this point.
Fienberg has the full schedule, and here are some additional thoughts night-by-night:
SUNDAY: "60 Minutes" and "The Good Wife" stay in place (and will, as usual, be pushed back many weeks due to football and other sports overruns), with ol' reliable "CSI" joining the night at 10 (Tassler largely ducked a question about whether this could be another veteran show going into its last year), and Tea Leoni as Secretary of State in the drama "Madam Secretary" — which CBS execs have joked is what you'd get "If '60 Minutes' and 'Good Wife' had a baby."
MONDAY: Having "Big Bang" there for a month and a half (before "2 Broke Girls" unfortunately comes back) should do wonders not only for the returning "Mom" at 8:30, but for "Scorpion" at 9. And "NCIS:LA" moves to the night both to stop the bleeding caused by "Hostages" and "Intelligence" (Kahl, putting it mildly, said, "At 10 o'clock, we did not do as well as we would have liked") and to make room for a new "NCIS" on Tuesdays. And speaking of which...
TUESDAY: "NCIS" remains unstoppable at 8 (even ABC blinked and moved "Agents of SHIELD" to 9 after it got smacked around this season), and "Person of Interest" did well at 10 after CBS struggled for years in that timeslot, so it stays. In between is "NCIS: New Orleans" with Scott Bakula. The last attempt to do an "NCIS" spin-off ("NCIS: Red," with John Corbett and Kim Raver) didn't get picked up a year ago, so "New Orleans" wasn't a lock to make the schedule, but it did, and it's here.
WEDNESDAY: "I'm not sure there has ever been a more aptly-named show than 'Survivor,'" noted Kahl of the long-running reality franchise, which is no longer a phenomenon but still does well in its timeslot, and this spring consistently and comfortably beat "American Idol" head-to-head. So it stays, as does the immortal "Criminal Minds" at 9, which will lead into a thematically similar new crime show at 10: "Stalker," from "The Following" creator Kevin Williamson and starring Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q as LAPD detectives specializing in stalking incidents. (It'll be a light-hearted two-hour block about women in jeopardy!)
THURSDAY: Eight weeks of football games — even if they'll be simulcast on NFL Network — should give CBS a big boost at the start of the season, and it'll be a mostly stable line-up after that, with "Big Bang," "The Millers," "Two and a Half Men" and "Elementary" all remaining in place, with only new sitcom "The McCarthys," a new sitcom starring Laurie Metcalf and Jack McGee as parents in a sports-crazed family. The big surprise is "The Millers" getting to stay at 8:30 after "Big Bang," given its poor retention numbers, but I'd put good money that CBS is just saving the spot for "The Odd Couple" at (not)mid-season, when they'll have more time to promote it.
FRIDAY: CBS has struggled attracting younger viewers to the night, so they've moved the younger-skewing "The Amazing Race" here at 8, leading into "Hawaii Five-0" and "Blue Bloods." The plus for "TAR" fans is that the show won't be delayed by football or golf anymore.
SATURDAY: Like the other networks, CBS doesn't really bother on the night anymore, with crime drama repeats at 8 and 9, and "48 Hours" at 10.
What does everybody else think? Is CBS changing too much? Not enough?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com