Upfronts 2016: CBS Schedule Favors Comedy, Consistency

Complete Coverage: Upfronts 2016

CBS, announcing a fall schedule that CEO Leslie Moonves said was the most difficult “in years” to finalize, slotted in three new comedies, pivoting back to a comedy-rich Monday lineup after last year's laugh-free experiment.

“This has frankly been one of the most difficult scheduling years ever,” Moonves said during the network’s annual press breakfast preceding its Carnegie Hall upfront. “Not because we didn’t have the programs, but there are so many factors that enter into our decisions now that didn’t exist before: digital, ownership, the international marketplace, measurement, the DVR, et cetera.”

Related: Broadcasters--Channel, Network Bundling Is Pro-Competitive

Newbies Kevin Can Wait, starring Kevin James, and Man With a Plan, with Matt LeBlanc, join Big Bang Theory2 Broke Girls and The Odd Couple on Mondays. Thursday Night Football games kick off Sept. 15 with the New York Jets at the Buffalo Bills. When those games end Oct. 27, Joel McHale comedy The Great Indoors will join the Thursday lineup.

"We like comedy because there’s not a lot of comedy out there, including the SVODs and basic cable and other networks, especially multi-cams," said CBS senior executive VP Kelly Kahl. "We look at that as a piece of real estate we can own."

Related: Verizon, GEICO Among Top Marketers on CBS

Supergirl, now headed to The CW, was a big swing for CBS on Mondays for 2015-16, signaling a major shift, the first time in decades the network hadn’t had a comedy on Mondays. It struggled after a fast start.

Other new entries on a schedule largely dependent on powerhouse returning shows (Kahl noted the network has 17 shows that draw more than 10 million total viewers, more than other broadcast nets combined) are MacGyver, a reboot of the 1980s classic that Kahl described as a “blue-sky” show; Bull, with Michael Weatherly as a trial consultant; and Pure Genius, a Silicon Valley medical drama with Dermot Mulroney and Augustus Prew. Doubt, starring Katherine Heigl, comes midseason, as does Training Day.

Execs noted the network will notch its 13th total audience win in the past 14 years, including the last eight in a row. They also said CBS will capture the demo crown—NBC had predicted a win also but was removing Super Bowl 50 from CBS.

In his opening, Moonves said, “Some have said, ‘Oh gee, they had the Super Bowl.’ Yes, we did and the Super Bowl helped. But let me tell you a fact. Without football, we still win in every single demographic.” He added, “There are a lot of misquotes out there, a lot of misinformation. That happens this time of year when people brag about statistics that they just made up last week.”

Kahl noted that CBS also finished No. 1 in C3 viewing.

In terms of the overall philosophy, Kahl said there would be “no cute phrases this year. Just a desire with the schedule to get a little better, get a little younger, improve time periods and improve nights. At CBS, consistency is a good thing. Complacency is a dirty word.”

Among the shows not mentioned during Kahl and Geller’s presentation of the schedule was Limitless, an adaptation of the Bradley Cooper movie that the star appeared in briefly and also produced. Asked later about the show’s fate, Geller said, “We are in discussions with other potential buyers.” He declined to elaborate or confirm its status on the schedule.

Asked about diversity (a perennial topic faced by CBS execs), Geller maintained the schedule for 2016-17 is “more diverse than last year’s.” Doubt, he said, will feature the first transgender series regular played by a transgender actor. “I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.

While CBS is largely an oasis of stability in a changing business, from 60 Minutes in its sixth decade to repeats on Saturday nights, there were some noteworthy changes. The upcoming schedule is the first since 2000, for example, without a show with the initials “CSI.” (CSI Cyber was cancelled earlier this spring.) Geller was non-committal when asked about the franchise’s future. “We’re proud of all four shows,” he said. “It may come back in another incarnation.”

Moonves promised plenty of retaliation at Carnegie Hall to the other broadcast upfronts, where rivals zinged CBS for successful-but-low-buzz titles like NCIS and Fox even altered his photo to portray him as “Les Luthor.”

The chairman offered a preview of the bullish speech he plans to deliver to media buyers. “You’ve heard all week about the lack of effect of digital advertising,” he said. “There are a lot of stats. We see money coming back to networks, not that it ever left. Some of the glow of digital… the bloom is off the rose. By the same token, basic cable doesn’t have the reach or the ratings that we do.”