Unveiling their new lineup to reporters Wednesday morning, CBS executives were their usual on-message selves: The Eye network is “strong,” “dominant,” “consistent,” and, dammit, not “old.” On that last point, company CEO Leslie Moonves bordered on indignant: “The idea of the old fogey network really should be put away forever,” he said, the mild frustration in his voice understandable, considering he’s been hammering away with this same message since at least 2003. But as much as Moonves and his top lieutenants stressed stability, the network’s fall schedule isn’t more of the same-old, same-old. In fact, it actually represents one of the more radical CBS lineups in years.
The shake-up isn’t obvious at first, particularly since the basic structure of the CBS programming grid is largely unchanged. All the major tentpoles — Scorpion, NCIS, Criminal Minds, The Big Bang Theory, Blue Bloods, and The Good Wife — remain in place. Two of the three drama additions (movie adaptation Limitless and medical drama Code Black) are simply replacing other underperforming hours. And just like last year, The Big Bang Theory will move to Mondays at the start of the season so that CBS can make millions of dollars (and eliminate a lot of reruns later in the season) by airing football on Thursdays. All those old people who aren’t watching CBS will still find plenty of comfort in the network’s schedule come September.
Where CBS is playing outside its comfort zone is in the kinds of programs it’s rolling out in the fall, as well as what it’s not doing. The network of NCIS and CSI will add just one new crime procedural, Limitless. They’ve heretofore resisted jumping on the Marvel/DC comic-book bandwagon, but will finally try to leap into the genre with Greg Berlanti’s reinvention of Supergirl. The network that’s kept multi-camera comedy alive in the era of The Office and Modern Family will be down to just two such half-hours in the fall (Big Bang and Mom), and will instead introduce a pair of glossy single-camera shows (Life in Pieces and Angel From Hell) that would be right at home on ABC or Fox. As a result, for the first time in recent memory, CBS will have an even split between multi- and single-cam comedies during the fourth quarter. Plus, once Supergirl takes flight, there will be no comedy at all on the Eye’s Monday schedule, something the network says has never happened since it began programming the night back in 1949.
To be sure, CBS is by no means blowing up the TV-for-the-masses philosophy that has served it so well the past 15 years. Fully half of its 20 weekly hours of original programming will still revolve around bringing criminals to justice. (Sorry, bad guys!) The new single-camera comedies aren’t reinventions of the genre like, say, Arrested Development (though the Jane Lynch–led Angel is directed by 30 Rock alum Don Scardino). But after strengthening its core this season with spinoffs (NCIS: New Orleans, CSI: Cyber), a comic riff on its crime formula (Scorpion), and a remake (The Odd Couple), the Eye is taking some calculated risks this fall. It has plenty of solid successes, but it wants — and maybe even needs — a breakout hit along the lines of Empire, How to Get Away With Murder, or the first season of The Blacklist. And it knows that in an era of endless choices and competition, that hit probably isn’t going to be something exactly like one of its current workhorses.
The Eye’s boldness is most evident on the comedy front, where the network’s recent track record has, like every network not named ABC, been mediocre. It’s wasted the past two years trying to use the incredible platform of The Big Bang Theory to make a comedy it owns — first The Millers, then The Odd Couple — into a hit. So this fall, the power of Bazinga will be used on Life in Pieces, a variation of Modern Family from the same studio (20th Century Fox TV) and director (Jason Winer) of the ABC smash. It’s a smart play: Big Bang is finally starting to (slowly) lose some ratings steam, and as much as networks want to own their own shows these days, CBS doesn’t have much time left to find its Next Big Sitcom. CBS last tried single-camera on Thursdays two years ago, with the late Robin Williams’s The Crazy Ones. It was a solid show, but ultimately too different from the Eye formula. Life, by contrast, seems a natural evolution for the network that once made Everybody Loves Raymond a hit. The stakes will be lower for Angel From Hell, which is being paired with Mom in the 9 p.m. hour, where both will battle to be the comedy alternative to Scandal and The Blacklist. But Mom is a critical darling with a solid, base audience; it seems a good fit with another female-led half-hour.
CBS’s other big bet is Mondays at 8, with Supergirl. Some are already wondering why the network would pit its comic-book show against Fox’s Gotham, which also hails from the DC universe. But as CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl rightly noted this morning, there’s no caped crusader on the Fox show, which instead focuses on villains. Plus, Gotham skews very narrowly, with men under 35 making up most of its audience. CBS is a much more broad-based network, and it’s betting it can draw both men and women, as well as folks over 40, to the lighter-in-tone Supergirl. (If anything, The Voice and Dancing With the Stars figure to be bigger threats to CBS’s newbie.) In any event, the Eye’s current Monday comedies, while getting solid ratings, weren’t exactly massive hits. Supergirl won’t have to fly too high to be a success.
The same is true with new 10 p.m. hours Code Black and Limitless, which will air on Wednesday and Tuesday nights, respectively. Code Black represents the Eye’s entry into next season’s big race to find a new medical drama hit, and the good news for it is that ABC left the modestly rated Nashville on Wednesdays, giving CBS a chance to find an audience for its newcomer. Limitless should have an even easier job gaining traction on Tuesdays, since it will face off against ABC’s new FBI soap Grey’s Academy (er, sorry, Quantico) and NBC’s risky Best Night Ever With Neil Patrick Harris. It’ll help that Bradley Cooper is in the pilot, and maybe a couple of other episodes — at long last bringing the Alias star back to prime time.
As always with CBS, the network’s gambles have been balanced by a deep bench of backup programming. If Supergirl stalls, comedy could be back on Mondays by January via 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly. If single-camera comedies don’t work on Thursday, The Odd Couple is waiting to step in. And if the Tuesday or Wednesday drama bets don’t pay off, there’s a Criminal Minds spinoff or an adaptation of Rush Hour. If most of the Eye’s fall freshmen do work out, the network will be able to eliminate a whole bunch of reruns in the spring. That could be particularly useful on Sunday nights, where the network needs something to replace The Good Wife in the middle of the season. It wouldn’t be shocking to see CBS take a left turn on the night, away from the classiness of Good Wife in favor of something more meat-and-potatoes, like the Criminal Minds spinoff, Beyond Borders. Its international theme might make a good fit with Madam Secretary, which skews very old Sundays at 8, but can draw upwards of 15 million viewers on a good night.
Overall, CBS figures to once again start off the fall in a position of strength. . Football on Thursday lets the network use the halo from Big Bang on Mondays for six weeks, countering NBC and ABC’s powerful unscripted franchises. And by putting on some decidedly different kinds of shows on the air in the fall, the network might even be able to generate some critical buzz to go with its reliably solid ratings. The real test for CBS will come later in the season, as viewers decide if they like the slightly different Eye focus — or if they prefer it to stay in the center lane.