In three weeks, the broadcast networks will unveil their programming plans for next season. CBS, as always, will proclaim yet another seasonal win at its annual presentation at Carnegie Hall in New York City (on May 18). This will mark 13 out of the last 14 years of total viewer dominance, under the leadership of CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. CBS is also poised for potential victory in adults 18 to 49 (thanks, in part, to Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7), which is only its third win in the demo in the last 24 years. And, in what could be an historical first, the network known for once catering primarily to geriatrics is tied for No. 1 in adults 18 to 34 (with NBC and Fox).
Since no network is a perfect platform, CBS is eying changes in primetime next fall that could impact four to five hours of weekly real estate. Nothing new this season (including heavily promoted “Supergirl”) is a bona fide hit. The weeknight 10 p.m. hour, which leads into the late local affiliate newscast, is showing signs of slippage (outside of “Blue Bloods” on Friday, perhaps). The departure of “The Good Wife” on Sunday must be addressed. And since “The Big Bang Theory” cannot last forever, CBS remains in search of the next big hit comedy.
Then there is the universal network issue of fragmented audiences and how to fend off the growing competition from the digital networks.
One of the key executives behind the scheduling at CBS is Kelly Kahl, Senior Executive Vice President Primetime, who I spoke to about the state of the medium today from the broadcast network point of view.
“I think there’s an interesting shift going almost back to big tent broad-appeal TV,” he began. “You have to wonder if these digital platforms are delivering they said they would deliver. And, all of a sudden, you look back at network TV and you realize nearly 20-million people are still watching a show like “NCIS.” The more the viewing choices start to fractionalize, the greater standing broadcast TV has. And then you have to wonder how profitable some of these digital shows that have small audiences are.”
Regardless of any shifts, the nuts and bolts of building a linear schedule is largely the same, according to Kahl, who points to using current successful series to build new hits as the foundation to the CBS line-up. But the bottom line today is less about how a show is doing in a time period and what demo number is getting, and more focused on if the show can be made into a successful franchise that can pay dividends in the future.
“I think the success factors that we look at have changed a lot,” he said. “Ownership has become a bigger issue. Not too long ago just getting a show on the schedule was kind of the end game. But now getting a show on the air is really just the beginning of the many exhibition windows for these shows; digital streaming, international streaming, and so much more.”
Then there is the issue of capitalizing on digital platforms without cannibalizing the linear audience. Last summer, NBC crime solver “Aquarius,” for example, became the first broadcast series to stream its entire season immediately following its linear premiere. But traditional ratings, potentially as a result, plunged and NBC buried the remaining first season episodes on low-rated Saturday.
“We certainly realize the way people watch TV has changed,” noted Kahl. “Encouraging people to watch on other platforms in addition to linear is very much part of the strategy, which includes CBS All Access. We didn’t commit the digital future of all our shows a few years ago to one platform. We have stayed opened minded and ready to move and stay flexible where we see opportunities.”
One potential opportunity is the new “Star Trek” series. Hoping to generate interest in CBS All Access, the still untitled scripted hour will preview on CBS on an undisclosed date in 2017. The premiere episode and all subsequent first-run episodes are then expected to be available exclusively in the United States on CBS All Access.
Kahl, of course, was mum on what lies ahead on CBS in primetime next season. “We pride ourselves in being either first or second in every time period across the week,” he said. “And we realize our audience is basically the same as it was 10 years ago. The only thing that has really changed is the viewer’s ability to watch on their own schedule and on different platforms. For advertisers we offer consistency and actual proof of eyeballs that some other platforms can’t offer.”
New projects in contention at CBS for next season include an untitled comedy with Matt LeBlanc and former “The Office” star Jenna Fisher as a married couple raising a family; an untitled comedy with former “The King of Queens” star Kevin James as a newly retired police officer also with a family; a revival of action/adventure “MacGyver;” “Drew,” a contemporary take on the character from the “Nancy Drew” book series; and “Training Day,” a reboot of the 2001 theatrical.