Network takes cautious approach to innovation

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — too much. That’s the philosophy at CBS, the only broadcast web to expand its audience during the 2008-09 season and the No. 1 network in total viewers.

“Whatever we did then, keep doing it now,” jokes Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment.

“You would think that would be the case,” she adds in a more serious vein, “but the irony is that we’re always looking ahead. We’ve been fortunate — and I’m knocking wood as I say this — that our procedural shows have been doing incredibly well and our comedies have been successful. But you can’t do the same thing over and over. We need to look to the future, build on what we have and at the same time, change it up and evolve and adjust.”

CBS is introducing four series on its fall schedule, including a spinoff of long-running hit “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles.” While CBS has sprinkled “CSI” and its spinoffs across several evenings of its schedule, it has paired the two “NCIS” series back-to-back on Tuesday, with Tassler saying that “they’ll complement each other very well.”

Tassler notes the success of 2008-09 rookie “The Mentalist” led to the frosh drama “The Good Wife,” starring Julianna Margulies as a woman who returns to the legal profession after her husband is embroiled in a high-profile sex scandal.

“Those are both personal stories, but they’re also franchises,” Tassler says. “They have very distinctive characters with a strong point of view. That, for us, is a marked step in the evolution of the dramas on CBS, given our established procedurals.”

Tassler says part of her network’s strategy is to have sitcoms share a common sensibility: “They all have a family or a quasi-surrogate family element to them, which is something comforting, that element of recognition.”

She refuses to say much when the subject of NBC’s “Jay Leno Show” comes up — “Obviously, they made a decision relative to their own needs” — but adds, “Ten o’clock is a huge business for us.” Noting that many people read before turning in for the night and that a large percentage of bestselling books are crime novels, she suggests that CBS is providing that in handy TV form.”Before people go to bed, they like a good story,” she says. “And at 10 o’clock, our shows are like a great mystery-suspense story that you can take in before you go to bed.”

SPOTLIGHT: THE GOOD WIFE

Julianna Margulies returns to TV as Alicia Florrick, a woman whose husband (Chris Noth) humiliates her in a Eliot Spitzeresque sex-and-political-corruption scandal. While he stews in prison, she returns to her original career as a defense attorney.

Given the proliferation of wrecked political careers and that “walking the Appalachian trail” is now a sordid euphemism, Margulies believes the show, created by Robert and Michelle King and exec produced with filmmakers Tony and Ridley Scott, will resonate with viewers.

“I was so quick to judge all those women that I saw standing up and standing by their man,” she says. “These women really don’t get their due. … These are smart women. It’s not like these are silly little wallflowers that are waiting for their husband to come home. Most of them (are) incredibly accomplished.”

NEW FOR 2009-10

ACCIDENTALLY ON PURPOSE

Jenna Elfman stars as a newspaper movie critic (apparently, they still exist) who gets pregnant after a fling with a much younger man (Jon Foster). They decide to live together platonically while her ex (Grant Show) hovers in the background in this sitcom created by Claudia Lonow and based on Mary Pols’ memoir.

NCIS: LOS ANGELES

Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J star in this spinoff of the long-running “NCIS,” playing agents in the Office of Special Projects. O’Donnell’s character specializes in assuming different identities for perilous undercover missions; LL Cool J plays a Navy SEAL fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan and adept with high-tech gadgetry. Shane Brennan exec produces.

THREE RIVERS

The complexities of organ donation — cajoling the families of the recently deceased to allow their loved one’s organs to be transplanted into others and transferring body parts to patients in dire need — are examined in this drama created by Carol Barbee and exec produced by Barbee, Curtis Hanson and Carol Fenelon.

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