CBS: America’s Broadcaster

Bill Carter’s report about CBS’ ratings success in recent years, and particularly so far this season, reveals the air of surprise about the network. Aside from The Good Wife, CBS has none of the series prominently favored by online critics, fans and scholars. Conversely, they have many of the shows dismissed by this same group, including the entire CSI franchise (and its procedural offshoots like NCIS and Criminal Minds) and that enduring symbol of their scorn, Two and a Half Men aka television’s most popular sitcom.

Despite this ostensible era of niches, events, and buzz, CBS is basically cleaning up by programming much as it has throughout its entire television history: offering up assured, unapologetic, easy-to-digest middlebrow fare across its schedule. In other words, broadcasting. This, after all, is the same network that created the figure of the gently authoritative television journalist (in Murrow and Cronkite), that has completely owned the domestic sitcom space (an unbroken streak stretching from Burns & Allen all the way to How I Met Your Mother), and that knows how to build and sustain successful formulas (from westerns to variety shows to hillbilly comedies to urban comedies to cop shows to prime-time soaps to procedurals). Lest we forget, this is also a network that has always known how and (especially) when to take a few chances in the name of “quality,” bringing us the likes of The Twilight Zone (twice!), The Nurses, East Side West Side, The Defenders, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 60 Minutes, All In The Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, The Paper Chase, Lou Grant, The White Shadow, Cagney & Lacey, Frank’s Place, Beauty and the Beast, Tour of Duty, Wiseguy, Northern Exposure, Brooklyn Bridge, Picket Fences, American Gothic, The Education of Max Bickford, Joan of Arcadia, Jericho and Swingtown.

[Granted, their support of all of these shows was not always ideal, or even “support,” in some cases. Moreover, lest we forget, this is also the network that brought us My Living Doll, Hogan’s Heroes, The Mothers-In-Law, Flying High, Enos, Flo, The Wizard, E.A.R.T.H. Force, Rescue 911, Walker Texas Ranger, Meego, Martial Law, Wolf Lake, My Big Fat Greek Life, Baby Bob, Dr. Vegas, Viva Laughlin, and Kid Town. You can’t win ’em all.]

CBS’ strategy (which their chief scheduler Kelly Kahl aptly likens to playing “ball-control offense” in football, i.e., playing it safe but steadily driving down the field) is premised on stability. Another way of thinking of this is the Long Game. That is, while other networks are more reactive, and certainly get more notice for their experiments, CBS quietly and consistently racks up the most viewers. Contrary to the dismissive spin that the network is only watched by septuagenarians, CBS is currently winning the 18-49 and 25-54 demos as well so far this season. As Carter points out, their ratings strength across the board allows them to nurture new shows and develop new franchises from which they could benefit for decades (Moonves is already savoring the prospect of turning the new Hawaii: Five-O into another CSI or NCIS).

This success is a perfect example of what Tim Anderson called “best practices” (PDF link) at the recent Flow conference: old media industry logics and practices that basically still work but are increasingly “left behind.” In our zeal to topple this old world and pursue the latest trend, we may lose sight of why these “old” practices not only worked, but may still work. In addition, and no slight to the Mad Men, Terriers and Capricas of the world, but there’s something impressive and almost magical about routinely, even stolidly, commanding 15+ million viewers a week, as several CBS programs still do. Broadcasting lives.

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