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In a Flyover State: An Eye for This Kinda Stuff

Thinking this is finally the year for the Chicago Cubs to win it all. Sleeping with Colombian hookers on the government’s dime. Punching fire extinguishers. Hiring Lindsay Lohan to star in your new TV movie.

When you make those decisions, everyone except you knows how they will turn out.

Then there are decisions that absolutely no one—and I mean no one, no matter how smart they are or how long they’ve been doing their job—knows what the result will be.

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the practice of picking new TV shows to put on your network.

That annual development crapshoot—to the tune of a couple hundred million dollars across the broadcast networks— reaches its crescendo this week across multiple stages in New York. To get to this point, some really, really smart people used different combinations of research, ego, black magic, experience, alcohol, gut instinct, fear, peer pressure, performance-enhancing drugs, tarot cards, prayer and whatever else you can think of to hammer out a fall schedule. And in the failure-based business that is television, they will be just as curious as you and I to see how everything plays out.

Through all the uncertainty, however, I do see some truths worth sticking to. Like for NBC: Get rid of your whole Thursday comedy lineup, and anything that looks like it. If you follow Twitter, those shows look like hits. But if you follow ratings, they’re the pits. That comedic feel doesn’t work on broadcast, and they aren’t selling in syndication, either. I’m excited to see what highly regarded NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt has up his sleeve for this fall. He probably has to get some traction, or I’m guessing the “Bonnie Hammer to the network” rumors will start flying by November.

As for Fox, I’d also dump that “Fox attitude” crap when it comes to comedies. When you actually did, you came up with New Girl, which last week completed the best season of any comedy on television. Instead of cynical and irreverent, it is funny and incredibly warm. It is what Modern Family was before this season, when the ABC show was still funny, before it got a little meaner. Either way, New Girl is an ensemble hit, with the upbeat and broader feel Fox needs to fi nally grow up and embrace.

ABC has tons of struggles in the ratings to be sure, but I like where they are headed. Revenge is the soapy kind of stuff they should be doing in drama, and their comedy development wasn’t awful this year (I know, I know…Work It). My money is on Paul Lee to sort this out.

So what do you do? It’s simple. Look at CBS. I’m like a broken record: On broadcast TV, if you develop shows with the goal of getting your pals in New York and Los Angeles to rave about them, they are probably not going to work. Get the 48-year-old women in Kansas City on board? Game on. On broadcast, buzz isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Making broad hits and not getting fired.

Think there’s too many cop shows or lawyer shows or those kinds of procedurals on the air? Think big, dumb and funny is no way to go through life as a sitcom? You’re wrong. Go ahead and avoid them. At CBS they’ll keep saying, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

Believe me, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler could go to a cable network like AMC or Showtime and develop cutting-edge stuff that would charm the pants off of Emmy voters and be the talk of cocktail parties in the Hollywood Hills and the Upper West Side. She has that creative club in her bag. It’s just that she and her boss are smart enough to keep the cover on it most of the time.

From what I hear, the CBS upfront will be just like the ones in past years: old school. And guess what? As soon as it stops working, then they should change it.

When it came out recently that CEO Leslie Moonves pulled down more coin last year than the combined salaries of the New York Yankees, Manchester United and the entire continent of Asia, some scoffed. I’m not sure why. Sure, you could wonder why he hasn’t yet diversified out his portfolio by grabbing TV Guide Channel (bad MSO deals) or Hallmark (bad financial structure) or launched his own new cable network to leverage his library, or say that buying CNET does not a digital strategy make. But as far as recognizing the media landscape today and creating and preserving value for shareholders—all while still being so hands on at the CBS network itself—it’s mighty hard to argue Moonves isn’t the best at what he does.

Oh—and by the way, CBS did not pitch me this story. If you know me, you know I don’t write columns off of pitches. Plus, one of Moonves’ top corporate flacks is a devoted Red Sox fan, and I started this column right after Boston swept my Twins. So if anything, just to piss him off right now, I’d like to write a hatchet job—maybe even calling Moonves’ college degree into question. But what kind of yahoo would falsify that?

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