Reviewing the CBS Upfront Presentation: It’s Good to Be Popular

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At all the upfronts thus far, the music playing while the audience mills around and finds a seat has been a slightly hip soundtrack of bands like Passion Pit and Phoenix. Not at CBS, which has little interest in being hip, but much interest in being successful. Pumping Miley, Ke$ha, and Gaga over the loudspeakers at Carnegie Hall, CBS let it be known before the show even began that it knows what it is: not all that cool, smart, or edgy, but really, really popular. Buoyed by this implacable sense of self, CBS put on a polished, convincing presentation. It will stick with the spin-offs, remakes, and laugh tracks, and leave critically acclaimed shows with terrible ratings to the losers.

Setting the hip-to-be-square tone, the presentation started at exactly 4:00, with a cutesy version of The Big Bang Theory theme song, tweaked to shout out all of CBS’s success and programming. Then, out came president and CEO Leslie Moonves, to big cheers and claps, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “The better CBS is doing, the better you all look to me,” Moonves told the crowd. “Ladies and Gentlemen, what a handsome group you look today.” The rest of Moonves’s extremely confident speech celebrated how the market, everywhere, in every industry, is turning around. “Everyone’s Bullish,” he said. CBS is "red hot."

In the midst of his speech about how awesome everything is for CBS, Moonves introduced a video that solidified (1) this was going to be a really good show for the Eye and (2) that ‘Shit’ would be the most popular word at this particular upfront. The video was one that shouldn’t have worked: Earlier this year CBS’s chief research officer, David Poltrack, got into an argument about “downer reports” that over-stated the weakness of TV advertising. The exchange had been caught on audio tape. CBS remixed it into a... hip-hop song, with the recurring chorus “Bullshit Number,” and cut video to go with it, showing an animated Poltrack with a boom-box. Somehow, this was all more weirdly funny and charming than it could possibly sound. Helping that might be the fact that everyone in the world is going to grade a CBS hip-hop joke on a curve. Moonves followed this with more boosterism, and then dropped a stat that will hopefully be fact-checked by tomorrow morning: More Americans have watched NCIS this season than have seen Avatar. The crowd said, "huh?"

After another montage, CBS’s sales president Jo Ann Ross came out for an awesomely short little spiel that mostly revealed the TelePrompTer was embedded in the floor. Then she read from a note card, “If you’re able to comprehend even a tiny portion of what this next speaker has to say, your life will be vastly improved.” And out came The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, in character as Sheldon. Parsons delivered a largely incomprehensible, and mostly charming speech that shouted out Cartesian planes and differential calculus, while flattering advertisers. “I’m Dr. Sheldon Cooper. You may be asking yourself what is one the greatest mind of the twentieth century doing talking to a room of advertisers,” he riffed, before explaining that he had decided advertisers were important. When he can travel in time, he will go back to the 1969 NBC upfront to make sure they don’t help cancel the original Star Trek.

Parsons then introduced CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler, who was rocking a bright pinkish-red, satin suit. She re-iterated how dope CBS is before demonstrating the awkward way in which the network had chosen to celebrate its talent: instead of the on stage parade favored by Fox, CBS opted to have actors stand in their seat and wave to the crowd from the crowd. The first person to receive this special honor was Chuck Lorre, the mastermind of Two and Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and the new series Mike & Molly. The trailer for this show was another example of CBS being comfortable with itself: it doesn’t look particularly funny, interesting, or even of this decade, but the audience laughed and laughed. Who cares if it’s cool? It’s gonna make CBS some money.

Tassler then introduced, a video of $#*! My Dad Says’s William Shatner. Campy as ever, Shatner told the audience, with the curses bleeped out, “It began on twitter. It was funny shit. So CBS decided to make into a TV show. I think I’m pretty fucking funny, but what the fuck do I know.” The trailer was not as good as this little speech. Sample dialogue: “My vagina’s broken dad.” “Cheese and crackers, that came at me fast.” Cheese and crackers, indeed. Tag line: “This fall the Shat hits the fan.” This show didn't sit with the audience as well as Mike & Molly, but CBS saved it by bringing out Shatner, and bringing out Parsons again, to geek out about meeting Captain Kirk. The bit killed.

Then the other Big Bang cast members waved awkwardly to the crowd, followed by the How I Met Your Mother gang, followed by a tear-jerking clip reel about Undercover Boss. All eight undercover bosses came out on stage, showcasing, as some astute tweets noted, that 1) Undercover Boss should really try to use some non-white, non-middle aged, non-male bosses next season and 2) these guys got to come on stage, but Neil Patrick Harris had to stay in his seat.

Last but not least was the clip for Hawaii Five-O, about which Tassler said, “it isn’t a remake, but a reboot,” that stars a “ridiculously sexy and talented cast... He’ll love it too, but this is so not your fathers Hawaii 5-0.” The promo, with a not-compellingly remixed theme song, looks like mindless fun, all guns, fistfights, quips and beaches. Seemed to go over.

Next up, Blue Bloods, a red-state cop show about a clan of New York City police, starring Tom Selleck, who has finally had a mustache long enough to be back in style, Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget “Wronged by Giselle” Moynahan, and Will Estes. The family’s last name is Reagan and has dinner conversation about the morality of “enhanced interrogation techniques:” the chick and the kid who has seen nothing yet are anti-torture, the police chief and the son who cares about doing whatever it takes to save small children are for it. Looks like a good fit for CBS.

Last but not least was the clip for Hawaii Five-O, about which Tassler said, “it isn’t a remake, but a reboot,” that stars a “ridiculously sexy and talented cast... He’ll love it too, but this is so not your fathers Hawaii 5-0.” The promo, with a not-compellingly remixed theme song, looks like mindless fun, all guns, fistfights, quips and beaches. Seemed to go over.

Then Tassler came back out for one last pitch, explaining that CBS does not expect any of its new shows to be “self-starters,” putting a “bonafide hit” before each one. She went over the schedule again, convincingly selling its solidity. When she got to Thursday at 8, she explained at a little more length that “For many years comedies like Friends and Cosby dominated television” and CBS fully believes Big Bang can do the same. “Even Saturday is better for us,” she said. And she’s not wrong. Score one for the popular kids.