Sturdy network eyes prize

For all of its success over the past six seasons, CBS has been unable to grab the industry’s brass ring. But this could be its year.

Once an afterthought when it came to the key demo races, the Eye web — the runaway leader in overall viewership — has become much more competitive in the categories that matter most.

Net has done a good job of shedding its “geezer” tag, but its core aud remains adults 35-64. Still, it attracts enough of the 35-49 segment to make it a force in the 18-49 category that advertisers crave.

CBS is tied with ABC for the 18-49 lead at midseason, and although it lacks a real watercooler skein, its lineup is about as solid as can be.

And CBS has an ace up its sleeve with the Super Bowl, which will give it the

lead in early February. Whether it holds on may depend on how well its new shows perform and what tweaks rivals ABC and Fox make down the stretch.

Here’s a closer look at CBS:

What sizzled: It hasn’t been the best year for Eye rookies, but small-town post-apocalypse drama “Jericho” has performed pretty well in Wednesday’s leadoff hour, improving on the performance of comedies in the hour a year ago.

It’s also the lone serialized CBS drama, as the net looks to diversify beyond its deep stable of crime procedurals. As such, it has generated more Internet buzz than just about any CBS show.

Another rookie with promise is Thursday legal/ crime drama “Shark,” which has held on to a respectable chunk of its “CSI” lead-in. The Eye would like to see “Shark” grow in coming months, but its consistent early performance rightfully earned it a full-season order.

Where the net has excelled most is in its sophomore class.

“Criminal Minds,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “Close to Home” are all up over their frosh campaigns of a year ago, and second-year laffer “How I Met Your Mother” is gaining buzz.

Also getting traction has been Sunday, where the relocated trio of “The Amazing Race,” “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace” has lifted the net by nearly 10% year-to-year.

Overall, CBS has six of television’s top 20 programs among adults 18-49, including all three editions of “CSI,” reality vet “Survivor” and the top-rated sitcom in “Two and a Half Men.”

What fizzled: Net tried to take its crime success a step further with the serialized skein “Smith,” but the Ray Liotta-fronted heist drama failed to excite viewers from the outset. It was gone within a month of its September premiere.

Its replacement, the medical drama “3 Lbs.,” also lasted only a few weeks, as Tuesday at 10 remains one of the few vexing hours for the net.

And while it’s not fair to place “The Class” in this category, the net clearly was hoping the comedy from the creators of “Friends” and “Mad About You” would click with young auds. It has performed OK, but needs to pick it up a notch to earn a sophomore season.

What’s ahead: Net has high hopes for David Spade laffer “Rules of Engagement,” which would seem to be a better match with the oft-bawdy “Two and a Half Men” than current slot occupant “Old Christine.” It won’t be easy going up against the second half-hour of hit dramas “24” and “Heroes,” but expect a big promo push during the Super Bowl.

Then there’s the unscripted “Armed & Famous,” in which familiar faces (including Erik Estrada and Latoya Jackson) undergo training to become cops in Indiana. Yes, CBS has found a way to do a crime reality series.

It’s a shot at something different, but it doesn’t figure to pay off in the Nielsens.

Also ahead is the series finale for unsung vet laffer “King of Queens,” which should provide a ratings spark in May.

Looking beyond this season, net could use a relationship skein or anything where people — and not the process — drive the storytelling. CBS has been hitting the same note when it comes to dramas, and auds eventually will tire of all crime, all the time.

Biggest question marks: It will be interesting to see how the net’s unscripted staples — “Survivor” and “Amazing Race” — fare in their second editions of the season. “Survivor” remains a slot winner but is increasingly vulnerable, while the all-star edition of “Race” will face additional reality competition on Sundays from NBC’s “Grease.”

Wednesday also could be key, both to see how “Jericho” returns after a lengthy layoff, and how current 10 o’clock leader “CSI: NY” is affected by the arrival of ABC’s “Lost” in its new timeslot.

Bottom line: It’s not flashy, but CBS is sturdy — and it has as good a shot at winning the demo title as anyone.

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