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upfronts 2012

CBS Knows Two and a Half Men Is Showing Its Age

"Not in my mouth!" -- Alan (Jon Cryer) and Walden (Ashton Kutcher) discuss Zoey\'s response to Walden telling her he loves her, on TWO AND A HALF MEN, Monday, date (9:00-9:31 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.  Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS ©2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Headed into this week's upfronts, you didn't have to be Sherlock to know that CBS executives wouldn't be taking too many Vegas-style gambles when assembling their new schedule. Why should they? In terms of overall audience, CBS isn't just No. 1; it's virtually in a Nielsen galaxy of its own, a universe where crimes are solved in an hour and hipsters are mocked for sport. And yet, somehow, CBS Wednesday managed to unveil a schedule whose biggest surprise was how (mostly) unsurprising it was: There was no expansion to four comedies on Thursday, no shift of NCIS: LA to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to make better use of the stronger NCIS lead-in, and only one (one!) new comedy on the entire schedule (and just four new shows overall). Those of us who analyze TV for a living might be disappointed at the relative stability of it all (see also: Fox), but CBS shareholders will be happy: The Eye has almost certainly guaranteed itself another year in first.

All of this is not to say that CBS isn't making a couple of very important scheduling shifts this fall. The biggest is on Monday, where the network has admitted reality: Two and a Half Men survived the loss of Charlie Sheen, but the show is starting to age quickly. Forget all the hype about how much the series is up versus last year; much of that has to do with inflated averages from last fall, when even people who never watched the show tuned in to see how Sheen's departure would be explained and how Ashton Kutcher would fit in. More recently, Two has come back to earth: This week's episode was only slightly higher rated than How I Met Your Mother with viewers under 50. This is not to say that Men is not still mighty, particularly compared to comedies on other networks. But by replacing Men with 2 Broke Girls in the 9 p.m. slot, CBS is smartly planning for the future, establishing Michael Patrick King's half-hour as the network's new Monday anchor well before Men loses all of its muscle. Eye insiders also believe Partners is a perfect fit with How I Met Your Mother, and with that show possibly calling it quits after the upcoming season, CBS hopes to use HIMYM to help launch one more comedy success.

The flip side of the Monday move, of course, is that Two will now air Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., behind the red-hot The Big Bang Theory. Conventional wisdom suggests that CBS, ideally, would want to use BBT to support a new comedy. But CBS has tried that several times over the past two years, and nothing it attempted was able to reach the same broad audience BBT pulls in. Can an aged Two and a Half Men do a better job holding on to the BBT lead-in? Probably: The former show helped launch the latter, and both sprang from the mind of Chuck Lorre. If CBS execs' calculations are right, the move should also help sophomore drama Person of Interest and make CBS stronger overall on Thursdays.

As for the much-anticipated four-comedy schedule on Thursday, in our walk-up to the upfronts last week, we noted that some industry insiders were starting to wonder if such a move made sense. That's because, in order to go to four comedies on Thursday, CBS would've had to launch three new sitcoms this fall (unless it kept around a loser like Rob or the supremely meh Rules of Engagement). With HIMYM and Two both in their twilight years, CBS could have ended up mortgaging its Monday future in pursuit of a Thursday dream. What's more, with NBC and ABC adding endless numbers of comedies to their lineups, perhaps CBS wisely figured it better to let the comedy land rush shake out before it jumped in.

Elsewhere, CBS is adding three new dramas in the fall, and all of them feel like smart moves — assuming, of course, that the shows work. On Tuesdays, the net has the retro crime drama Vegas, which potentially could bring the Eye buzz it hasn't had on the night since The Good Wife decamped to Sundays. We still wonder why CBS didn't consider slotting Vegas at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, behind the much stronger NCIS, but the Eye's love of stability probably made that a long shot. The net's other drama moves are also no-brainer plays that fit within the network's drama hierarchy: Because Thursday is a more important night than Sunday, newcomer Elementary gets the chance to add some spark to Thursdays, while the middle-aged The Mentalist replaces the old-timey (and now canceled) CSI: Miami. Finally, Made in Jersey, airing Fridays at 9 p.m., represents CBS's annual effort to make a new drama work on the night (Blue Bloods is the only successful Friday drama launch for CBS in the last five years).

Veteran network programmers say one of the best predictors of how a net will do in the year ahead is to take a look at how stable its lineup is: Usually, more changes to scripted programming hours means more chaos, more failure, and lower ratings. According to the calculations of one network exec who goes by the Twitter handle of @maskedscheduler, NBC is taking a lot of chances next season: 40 percent of the hours in its scripted lineup consists of all-new shows, and when you count old shows in new time slots, the disruption rate leaps to a whopping 70 percent. ABC, with exactly half of its scripted hours in flux, is also making a high number of programming plays; Fox, with 40 percent new or changed, is much more stable. It should come as no surprise that CBS is the network maintaining the most stability: 22 percent of its scripted hours (three dramas, one comedy) are brand-new, while a mere 16 percent of its veteran shows are moving time slots, resulting in just 38 percent of the lineup in transition. For those of us who analyze TV schedules, the CBS and Fox lineups might seem a little bit sleepy. For those execs who live or die based on how well these adjustments perform in the ratings, another word is probably more appropriate: smart.

Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS