CBS says connection with viewers is higher priority

Viewers love CBS. Critics? Not so much.

When the members of the TV Critics Assn. hand out their annual kudos this weekend, not a single plaque will go to any CBS entertainment series. That’s because none of the net’s comedies or dramas landed a nomination this year.

Eye’s little brothers UPN and Showtime snagged noms. So did relatively tiny cabler BBC America.

But CBS was shut out of the major series awards. It’s a pretty stunning slap, particularly since the Eye just marked its third consecutive season as

TV’s most-watched net.

CBS senior VP of communications Chris Ender doesn’t pretend the net didn’t notice.

“Everyone wants acclaim,” he admits. “If they say they don’t, they’re lying.”

Crix, however, say it’s nothing personal.

“I can’t imagine that the critics would, en masse, have something against a network,” says Matthew Gilbert, TV critic for the Boston Globe. “It’s just that their shows aren’t extraordinary. There’s nothing particularly artful about them.”

Diane Werts of Long Island’s Newsday says Eye programming reps “the great middle.”

“They’re not horrible shows, but they’re not exceptional,” she says. “And frankly, that’s probably the path to commercial nirvana. You don’t offend anyone.”

Werts argues that crix and viewers don’t necessarily share the same agenda.

“We’re looking for something that’s different. The audience is looking for something comfortable,” she says, adding that it wouldn’t make sense for crix to flex their muscles in support of programming that’s just OK.

Since crix often see themselves as guides for viewers, “We’re going to always pay more attention to the extremes,” she says, whether it’s praising genius or warning readers of duds.

The Eye’s Ender agrees with Werts’ take on the role of crix, saying that the net looks to journos “as a way to get the word out about our programming.

“It’s more about awareness than it is endorsement,” Ender explains, adding that the net maintains “tremendous respect” for crix, despite repeated snubs. He notes that a number of Eye skeins — including newcomers such as “How I Met Your Mother” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” — have garnered solid notices from crix.

“This should be put in perspective,” Ender says. “We have had a lot of critical support for our shows. It would be a mischaracterization to say CBS shows aren’t liked by television critics. We just didn’t get on their nomination list this year.”

He also argues that shows such as “CSI” or “Two and a Half Men” have “all the sizzle, substance and on-screen quality of any of TCA’s listed favorites.”

The Newark Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall says the Eye doesn’t need to apologize.

“They’re not programming to us. They’re going right down the middle of the road, and it works for them,” he says.

And Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that flashiness has never really been the Eye’s strong suit.

“CBS is the tortoise, not the hare,” she says. “They win by being steady, not by being innovative.”

It also doesn’t help that the TCA doesn’t have a category for reality shows. Several crix — Pennington included — cited “Amazing Race” as a shoo-in for honors if such a category existed.

That said, Pennington does wonder if CBS is perhaps “a little scared of being too innovative,” since the net’s core audience is made up of “people who like solid meat-and-potatoes dramas.” Eye’s sked has a heavy dose of crime-themed procedurals, the bulk of them from producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Many crix interviewed for this story pointed to Bruckheimer’s “CSI” as an example of what the Eye has done right and wrong when it comes to creating kudo-friendly fare.

When it debuted, skein was a thoroughly fresh take on a police procedural. Crix gave it good reviews (Werts says it was her favorite pilot the year it bowed).

Since then, net has launched a slew of other shows similar to “CSI.” That reliance on formula means that for many crix, Eye shows — including the still-distinctive “CSI” — tend to blend together.

“You’ve got to be distinctive to get strong feelings,” Werts says. “You look at another network and say, ‘Gee, look at the difference between ‘Lost’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’ or between ‘My Name Is Earl’ and ‘The Office.’ The CBS shows are just kind of there. I mean, ‘The Unit’ is from Shawn Ryan and David Mamet, but who can tell?”

The Globe’s Gilbert believes it would be unwise for CBS to ignore the lack of kudo buzz surrounding its skeins.

“They want viewers, and yes, they are a business, but they’re also a creative venture,” he says. “They should be trying to win awards from creative ambition. If they get lazy … and don’t push themselves creatively, they will find themselves back on the bottom.”

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