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Midway through season, Eye’s leading the pack

CBS tops thanks to crime dramas, laffers, reality

Madison Avenue bet a cool $2.5 billion on the CBS primetime lineup last spring, and the Eye’s perf midway through this season has made that look like a very sound investment.

Coming off a 2004-05 campaign in which its series programming rated tops among the broadcasters in key demos, the Eye was rewarded with the biggest slice of the annual upfront advertising pie — ending NBC’s long run as the most monied net.

And with an ever-deeper bench of hit crime dramas, a young and promising comedy roster and two of television’s most durable reality franchises, CBS delivered big-time in the fall. It also didn’t hurt that the Eye had the best rookie class of any net, granting full-season orders to five of its six newbies.

In non-sports Nielsen averages for the first 14 weeks of the season, CBS is on top in adults 18-49, 25-54 and total viewers, on par with its perf of a year ago — this despite losing top-rated comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

In the first of a six-part series analyzing the broadcast nets at midseason, here’s a closer look at the Eye:

WHAT WORKED: Pretty much everything.

On the comedy side, net has added two solid pieces in “Out of Practice” and “How I Met Your Mother” and successfully slid “Two and a Half Men” into the “Everybody Loves Raymond” timeslot Mondays at 9. “Men” is down a respectable 10% from “Raymond,” which was still potent in its final season.

Among new hours, Friday psychic drama “Ghost Whisperer” has been the most impressive. This cross between “Medium” and “Touched by an Angel” has dominated its 8 o’clock hour with a 10 share in 18-49 and a 12 share in 25-54.

Whydunit “Criminal Minds” has been effective, too, staking out a solid No. 2 position Wednesday at 9 opposite ABC’s hot “Lost.”

CBS also salvaged first-year crime drama “Close to Home,” which was struggling on Tuesdays but began winning its slot when shifted to Fridays behind “Ghost.” Throw in 10 o’clock success “Numbers,” and the Eye’s Friday has surged 30% year-to-year to a comfortable No. 1 position on the night.

Net also is enjoying unparalleled success in the 8 o’clock hour with returning series. Thursday’s “Survivor,” Sunday’s “Cold Case” and Tuesday’s “NCIS” are all thriving — and the latter has set several ratings highs in its third season.

CBS also seems to be doing a lot of the little things right, including skedding Saturday in an efficient manner (repeats of crime dramas and a retooled “48 Hours”). Also not to be forgotten is the work Jeff Fager and his team are doing at “60 Minutes,” which is up year-to-year, by recruiting more viewers from the net’s Sunday football games for reports on subjects like online gambling and Howard Stern.

Oh, and then there’s a show called “CSI” — TV’s No. 2 series in demos and No. 1 in total viewers — that continues to anchor the net’s powerful Thursday lineup. CBS is topping second-place NBC by a hefty 56% on the night.

WHAT HASN’T WORKED: Alien-invasion skein “Threshold” was the latest in a line of out-there dramas (think “Wolf Lake”) that haven’t quite worked, despite having some admirers among critics and a cult fan following. Show was losing a big chunk of its “Ghost Whisperer” lead-in on Friday and then did nothing when it got a Tuesday tryout.

The family edition of “The Amazing Race” was a ratings disappointment as well, but the franchise should bounce back when it reverts to its regular format for season nine beginning in late winter.

WHAT’S AHEAD: If there’s one criticism of CBS, it’s that the net relies too heavily on crime shows (its 13 hours are more than the other five broadcast nets combined) and lacks a character-driven or serialized skein that can generate watercooler buzz.

Dramedy “Love Monkey” is at least a step in the right direction, but this tale of young New Yorkers looking for love is probably too far afield to mesh with the net’s drama profile: Nobody is dead or dying.

Although there’s no immediate need, the net also needs to find its next reality franchise, as “Survivor” and “Amazing Race” are more than 5 years old. Similar to its situation with dramas, the net shouldn’t let its current successes keep it from hungering for the next generation of blockbusters.

On the comedy front, both “How I Met Your Mother” and “Out of Practice” have the potential to be around for years, and the net’s upcoming Julia Louis-Dreyfus laffer holds some appeal as well. This is key as vet “King of Queens” is nearing the end of its run.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s smooth sailing the rest of the season for CBS, the strongest and most balanced of the broadcast webs.

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