'Cane,' 'Viva Laughlin,' 'Moonlight' slotted

CBS is mixing something different into its scheduling recipe this fall, keeping power players in place while making room for a handful of edgy new shows.

That includes atypical Eye series like the new “don’t call it a musical, call it a drama with music” entry “Viva Laughlin,” which lands on Sundays.

“For those of you who know CBS as being too conservative, you’ll feel different when you see the shows we have lined up and the schedule,” CBS Corp. honcho Leslie Moonves told reporters at a press conference early Wednesday.

CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler had been promising more original and unusual fare — not just the net’s steady and profitable menu of procedural dramas — all year. But until this week, she said, naysayers still wondered whether shows like “Laughlin” would actually make it to air.

“I don’t think a lot of people thought we were actually going to, first, produce the pilots and then actually put them on the schedule,” Tassler said. “But you need to put your best product on the schedule, and as fate would have it, that’s how it worked out.

“We were going to make some noise, stir things up — and we did,” she added.

One of Tassler’s most daring efforts, however, will have to wait until midseason. The 1970s-era drama “Swingtown” — about, yes, swingers — will wait for an open 10 p.m. slot (it won’t air earlier in the evening) in the spring. Show will air straight from premiere to finale without repeats — an increasingly common trend at the nets.

Given the show’s subject matter, Tassler joked that the skein made CBS’ Washington boss Marty Franks’ “head almost blow up.”

Meanwhile, the Eye is actually playing it rather safe with its sked, moving utility player “Without a Trace” back to Thursdays at 10 p.m. (swapping slots with the Sunday-bound “Shark”) rather than introducing a new show behind “CSI.”

Net admits the move is a money play, as it looks to boost its perf on what’s considered the most important night of the week for advertisers.

“This is the move not a lot of people saw coming,” said CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl, who heads up the net’s program planning and scheduling. “We’re bringing a strong show back to a timeslot where it dominated. There’s a chance to eke out some real gains on a tough night. It puts us back in the plus column here next year.”

Kahl said CBS looked to put its new scripted shows in open slots where they wouldn’t be required to do much heavy lifting — hence the decision to schedule the Jimmy Smits drama “Cane” on Tuesdays at 10 and “Viva Laughlin” in the Sundays at 8 spot. (“Viva” may bow in another spot for several weeks to stir up sampling for the show and avoid Sunday football overruns.)

And the net likes the symmetry of putting new vampire-themed show “Moonlight” behind the spirits of “Ghost Whisperer” on Fridays.

“Like everyone else, we need to find new hits,” Kahl said. “We’re not asking any of our new shows to perform miracles. They can improve time periods, but they’re not being asked to completely change nights.. … We’re not just throwing stuff up on the wall to see what sticks. We’re giving them a chance to succeed.”

CBS’ one new comedy, the Chuck Lorre-produced “The Big Bang Theory,” will sit in the hammock between “How I Met Your Mother” and Lorre’s hit “Two and a Half Men.” Eye also hopes to establish reality in the Wednesday 8 p.m. slot (vacated by “Jericho”) with the alternative skein “Kid Nation,” which was originally conceived for summer but became a fall contender in recent days (Daily Variety, May 16).

“Kid Nation,” in which children spend 40 days attempting to build a new society without parental supervision and modern comforts, stirred the biggest reaction — even more than “Swingtown” — from the aud at CBS’ upfront presentation, held Wednesday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Clips from the show drew a wide range of reactions — “Isn’t this funny?”-style chuckles from some, “How can they get away with this?”-like murmurs from others.

Aud clapped hard when told that “The New Adventures of Old Christine would return later in the season. Critically acclaimed half-hour has landed only a 13-episode order for now.

“We love ‘Christine,’ but when we looked at the (Monday) time period, when you have the numbers that ‘Rules of Engagement’ delivered, you can’t run away from it,” Tassler said. (Others pointed out, however, that “Christine” suffered only after being shuffled around the net and put on hiatus.)

Several comedies are also still in play for midseason, including “Captain” and “I’m in Hell,” and Kahl said there’s still a chance the net may open up a second laffer block. But no plans are set just yet.

Also still in the hunt, but not yet picked up: zombie drama “Babylon Fields.” Other shows already confirmed for next season include another cycle of “The Amazing Race.” The Drew Carey-hosted gamer “Power of 10″ is on tap for summer.

Continuing the trend of shortened upfront presentations, CBS event clocked in at just one hour and 15 minutes — 10 minutes shorter than NBC’s Monday show. Net cut out its usual news and sports presentations, and also kept the entertainment to a minimum, save for a short opening number by an a capella group singing and rapping the network’s praises.

Moonves showed up only briefly at the start, leaving the stage to Tassler (and, in a running joke, to “CSI: Miami” star David Caruso — mocking the way he seems to always throw on his sunglasses while spitting out a pithy phrase on the show). CBS sales chief JoAnn Ross appeared only as an avatar, while interactive topper Quincy Smith gave a now-customary digital update.

“I understood about a third of what Quincy said, but I loved all of it,” Moonves said.

So what got into CBS this season? Meat and potatoes are nice — and CBS’ tried-and-true procedurals, led by the “CSI” trio, are still basic to the net’s diet. But Tassler has made no secret that she was looking to conjure up a little more buzz at the net.

Moonves, the architect of CBS’ return to the ratings table, admitted that he was skeptical at first.

“Was I scared they’re doing ‘Cop Rock’?” Moonves said, referring to “Laughlin’s” musical pedigree. “It’s not ‘Cop Rock.’ “

The exec said any final reservations about scheduling the show were erased when he showed the tape to CBS news and sports topper Sean McManus.

“McManus is a jock, and he loved it,” Moonves said. “That’s when I thought, OK, we’ve broken through. It can play in the Midwest. It’s about quality, and these were the best shows.”

But even as the net plays up its new series as sexy fare, traditional CBS viewers still won’t see a jarring change on the air. Shows like “Moonlight” marry a not-so-CBS concept — vampires — with a much-more-like-CBS crime procedural backbone. Even “Laughlin” and “Cane” boast murderous mysteries in the vein of the Eye’s top-rated shows.

Moonves said scheduling the shows was also easy because “we had time periods where we could take a chance.”

Eye traditionally has its schedule more or less set by the time execs show up in New York the weekend before its upfront presentation. Not this year.

“This may have been one of the more unusual scheduling years for us,” Moonves said. “When you take swings, a lot of people in the room feel passionate.”

CBS Primetime SchedulePrimetime schedule for 2007-2008
7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30 10:00 10:30
Mon. How I Met Your Mother Big Bang Theory Two and a Half Men Rules of Engagement CSI: Miami
Tue.   NCIS The Unit Cane
Wed.   Kid Nation Criminal Minds CSI: NY
Thur.   Survivor CSI Without a Trace*
Fri.   Ghost Whisperer

Moonlight Numbers
Sat.   Drama repeats 48 Hours Mystery
Sun. 60 Minutes
Viva Laughlin
Cold Case
Shark*
On the Bench: Swingtown; New Adventures of Old Christine; The Amazing Race; Power of 10
* indicates time period change
Bold denotes new show

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