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upfronts 2010

CBS Upfront Analysis: The Play-It-Safe Network Plays It Slightly Less Safe

CBS likes to play it safe with its programming and its prime-time scheduling. Except, that is, when it doesn't. Next season's schedule falls into the latter category: Surprising many (but not all!) industry observers who'd wrongly assumed the Eye network would just make a few minor tweaks to its lineup, today CBS decided to go crazy. Well, relatively crazy. CBS crazy. Survivor, which has aired on Thursday nights for most of its decade-long run, is returning to its original Wednesday night home. Two of the CSIs — Spicy Recipe (Miami) and Sour Apple flavor (NY) — are shifting slots, moving to Sundays and Friday. And, in the boldest move of all, supernova-like comedy The Big Bang Theory is headed to the storied 8 p.m. Thursday slot, the time period that in past years has housed comedy giants such as Friends and The Cosby Show. Those shows aired on NBC, however; the last time CBS aired a comedy on Thursday was when Lost prequel Gilligan's Island tickled the fancy of sixties Americans. "We decided it was time to take a swing at Thursday night again," says CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl. "And if you're going to do that, you better bring a big stick. [Big Bang] is absolutely on fire."

As stunned as some in the TV biz were by the move, it's actually a pretty logical shift. Survivor, while up during this most recent cycle thanks to a possibly legendary showdown of good versus evil, has been slowly trending downward in recent years and was probably ready to move. Moving it to Wednesday all but guarantees CBS will dominate the 8 p.m. hour that night, dashing ABC's hopes of any sort of comedy momentum early in the evening.

Meanwhile, the 8 p.m. hour on all nights has been tough for the networks in recent years, with few scripted shows proving they have what it takes to kick off a lineup in a big way — particularly on Thursdays. ABC looked like it had an early evening hit in FlashForward, but that show quickly fizzled. And it's taken Fox more than a year to build Bones into a solid success.

Big Bang, however, has a big, young, and (hopefully) loyal audience that seems likely to follow it to Thursdays. And as much as we love, love, love Community, the rest of America has been slow to catch on, allowing CBS a wide open shot at establishing a comedy beachhead on a night that promises big ad dollars to anyone who can do well (movie studios pay big bucks for Thursday hits).

The other CBS shifts are also relatively gutsy, but inherently logical. CSI: NY is the weakest of the crime trilogy and was showing no signs of growth on Wednesdays; on Friday night, where expectations (and competition) are diminished, the series could prove to be an anchor for CBS, rather than weighing the network down.

CSI: Miami was doing much better on Monday nights, but CBS knows it needs to find a new generation of drama hits to bolster its roster of aging crime procedurals, and the only way to do that is to launch new shows off the backs of existing hits. CBS's comedy block, then, is a great way to drive viewers to new (but actually old) hour Hawaii Five-O, which will air Mondays at 10. We were skeptical when we first heard of CBS's plans to remake the island crime drama, but Scott Caan's reimagining of Danno is supposed to be a star turn, while Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho could help fill the void left by the end of Lost.

Five-O is one of three new procedurals CBS is hoping can fill the (gum)shoes of crime-show murder victims Cold Case and Numbers. The net's got a new Vegas-set law show called The Defenders (which features the comedy stylings of Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell). And there's also Blue Bloods, in which Tom Selleck, as the patriarch of a family of cops, makes a triumphant return to TV. Wait, did they use the words "triumphant return" when he joined Las Vegas for a season? Or when he had his short-lived 1998 sitcom The Closer? Nobody triumphantly returns like Selleck!

On the comedy front, CBS is following the loud comedy Big Bang with the potentially controversial $#*! My Dad Says. Nina Tassler, head of CBS Entertainment, compared star William Shatner's character to Archie Bunker, which could either mean comic gold or an endless assault of insensitive jokes about minorities and technology. (Meanwhile, Tassler says the show's title is pronounced Bleep My Dad Says, but that the title must be written using the Eye's carefully focused-grouped collection of symbols. We're surprised they didn't go with a tilde).

Then there's Mike & Molly, or The Biggest Loser: Sitcom Edition. The show — from newly crowned comedy king Chuck Lorre — revolves around two Chicagoans of size who struggle with both love and their love of carbs. "Finding each other may have been worth the 'weight,'" CBS said in its official description of the series. Really, there's no way we can improve on comedy of that caliber, so we'll just leave it at that.

Photo: Mario Perez/CBS