Monday, December 15, 2008

Reflections On The Midseason - CBS

With all five of the American broadcast networks having announced their midseason schedules I thought it was a pretty good opportunity to look at the shows that are been replaced and the shows that replacing them and at the general successes and failures of the networks. And I decided that I might as well start with CBS.

Cancelled: The Ex-List

Episodes Ordered: Eleventh Hour (18 episodes), The Mentalist, Gary Unmarried, Worst Week (16 episodes)

New Shows: Flashpoint (Friday, second hour), Harper's Island (Thursday, third hour once the run of Eleventh Hour concludes), Game Show In My Head (Saturday first hour).

Flashpoint isn't really a new show. This is the second season of the Canadian made police series that debuted this past summer, and did very well in the ratings. The show stars Enrico Colantoni, Hugh Dillon, Amy Jo Johnson, David Paetkau and deals with the situations faced by the "Strategic Response Unit" of a major – if unnamed – Canadian city, presumed to be Toronto. Returns January 9, 2009 (replacing The Ex-List).

Game Show In My Head is a hidden camera game show from Ashton Kutcher, hosted by Joe Rogan. Contestants perform five stunts for the public for $5,000 each, before a bonus round in which they can double their money up to $50,000. Based on the Saturday time slot and the decision to show episodes back to back, it's likely that this show is being burned off. Starts January 3, 2009.

Harper's Island is described as a 13 episode "mystery event" (the sort of thing that back in the day we used to call a mini-series) dealing with a series of murders of people attending a "destination wedding" on an isolated island off the coast of Seattle. The show is described as "Scream meets 10 Little Indians" and stars Harry Hamlin, Adam Campbell, Elaine Cassidy, Katie Cassidy, Richard Burgi and Jim Beaver (who is well known to those of us who hung out at the rec.movies.past-films newsgroup). Debuts April 9, 2009.

Commentary: If I were CBS President Les Moonves I'd have a huge grin plastered on my face and only part of it would be because I'd be sleeping with Connie Chung Julie Chen. Of course I'm not Les Moonves (and not sleeping with Connie Chung Julie Chen dammit), but I think you get my point. While CBS's line-up is hardly flashy or innovative, the facts speak for themselves. Of five new series that debuted in September for CBS only one has been cancelled is The Ex-List which lost between 30% and 40% of Ghost Whisperer. Even at that it finished second in its time slot in its third and final outing, and would probably have won the time slot had it stayed there. And yet what happened on Friday nights once The Ex-List was removed from the line-up is illustrative of the strength of the CBS line-up. The final episode of The Ex-List had an audience of 5.33 million viewers and a rating in the 18-49 demographic of 1.5/5. In the weeks that followed CBS aired two repeats of NCIS (11.21 million, 2.3/8 in the demographic in the first week; 11.26 million, 2.4/7 in the second week), a Price Is Right: Salute To The Troops special (7.31 million, 1.7/5), a repeat of The Mentalist (11.62 million, 2.4/7), a second – repeat – episode of Ghost Whisperer (5.97 million, 1.5/4), and a repeat of Numb3rs (8.45 million 1.9/6). What this seems to illustrate is that CBS has a line-up of dramas that can readily be repeated and can draw an audience when they're being repeated. I think it can be argued that having a show on in the same place every week, regardless of whether the episodes are new or repeats, is a way to build win fan loyalty. If nothing else, in this rocky economy it is one way of keeping costs at an acceptable level. Instead of creating new shows (that almost inevitably fail) to fill hiatuses in the long dark periods between sweeps periods, it has to be cheaper to run repeats, and if those episodes come from a previous year or two and thus aren't fresh in people's memory, well so much the better.

Moonves isn't doing badly in the comedy business either. Of the four half hour comedies on Monday night, about the only weak spot – and in this case weak is relative – is Worst Week. Worst Week manages to pull 10.6 million viewers (first place) and a rating of 3.5/8 in the 18-49 demographic this past Monday against the first half of the Boston Legal finale, Heroes (which barely won the demographic), Privileged and Prison Break. In just about every other time slot and by any other network that would be regarded as a strong performance, but Worst Week follows Two And A Half Men (15.65 million viewers, 5.2/13 in the demographic) meaning that Worst Week is losing about a third of the earlier show's audience. But while most networks seem to have trouble carving out one night with comedies – or even one successful comedy – CBS has made a bridgehead on a second night with the Wednesday night combo of the veteran New Adventures Of Old Christine and rookie Gary Unmarried. They aren't winning the night but they are pulling solid second place ratings against the time slot winner, FOX's Bones (and this is in spite of me panning Gary Unmarried – so much for the "power" of internet critics!). Net result is the cancellation of ABC's Pushing Daisies and a cut in the order for Knight Rider from twenty-two to seventeen episodes.

And as far as Reality shows go, sure they've had more than their share of summer misfires over the past few seasons, but they've still got Survivor and The Amazing Race performing well, an d in the case of the latter likely to perform better once NBC's Sunday Night Football is out of the way.

Of course Moonves has worries – probably. There has to be some concern about how the audience will react to William Petersen's imminent departure from CSI and there has to be some concern over audience erosion from established shows. Indeed there has to be some concern over what will replace some of the established shows. CSI is in its ninth season, Without A Trace is in its seventh season, as is CSI: Miami. NCIS and Cold Case have both been on for six seasons. Relatively speaking Criminal Minds is something of a "baby" on CBS, having only been on for four seasons. Inevitably, and more likely sooner rather than later for some of these shows, an end will come – not necessarily because of bad ratings but because the "important" people on the show decide it is time to move on, or because someone at the network decides that it isn't cost effective for them to keep the show on the air even though it's not only holding its own in the ratings but may even be winning its time slot. The question of whether or not to be innovative, or indeed whether or not the network can afford to take the risk of being innovative. Or whether, as Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune said on Aaron Barnhart's TV Barn podcast, "In response to all the crisises that we were just talking about... [indistinct] they're just going to batten down the hatch and make nine different Mentalists." Does CBS replace a CSI (for example) with an innovative show that pushes the envelope a bit or does the network stick with what has made them a success. Of course that's for the future. For right now of all the networks, CBS is sitting prettiest.

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