Network leading in key demo categories

Rumors of the demise of the broadcast biz have been greatly exaggerated, at least over at CBS.

The net, seemingly impervious to the numerous problems affecting some of its rivals, is as steady as they come. And at midseason, it leads in key demo categories while enjoying its customarily healthy advantage among total viewers.

No network delivers on the promise of a show better than CBS. The Eye knows what works for its audience, and this has helped it improve its odds of finding new hits.

CBS possesses not only this season’s hottest newcomer — “The Mentalist” — but also the top-rated sophomore skein in “The Big Bang Theory.”

Monday’s “Big Bang” combines with TV’s top laffer, “Two and a Half Men,” and rising star “How I Met Your Mother” for the strongest laffer lineup on television.

The performance by the comedies is important for CBS, if for nothing else to show that it is more than just a collection of crimeshows. In a bit of a drama rut, nearly all of the net’s hit scripted hours in the last dozen years has focused on the dead or the dying.

One year after veering off-brand with entries like “Swingtown,” “Cane” and “Viva Laughlin,” CBS has returned to its bread-and-butter crime/mystery genre. But it’s been smart to make each new entry distinct.

The more character-driven “The Mentalist” is a hit, sci-fi-ish “Eleventh Hour” is hanging in there on Thursday, summer success “Flashpoint” (an updated “SWAT”) is back on Friday, and the murder mystery “Harper’s Island” is on tap for spring.

Overall, CBS remains the most balanced network, winning or challenging for the lead every weeknight while getting enough help from NFL overruns to compete on Sundays.

For the season, CBS (3.1 rating/8 share in adults 18-49) enjoys a narrow lead over its rivals (2.9/8 for ABC and NBC and 2.8/8 for Fox), and figures to give Fox a battle for the season crown in the key demo. While its rivals are down 12% or more, CBS is off just 5%.

The Eye is a lock, meanwhile, to win once again in adults 25-54 and total viewers.

Here’s a look at CBS as it approaches midseason:

WHAT SMOKES: The Eye claims nine of the season’s top 25 programs among adults 18-49, including “CSI” (No. 4) and top-rated comedy “Two and a Half Men” (No. 6). Reality vet “Survivor” also cracks the top 10 while dramas “Criminal Minds” and “CSI: Miami” are 11th and 12th, respectively.

CBS has also improved its fortunes on Tuesday with the tandem of “NCIS” and Simon Baker starrer “The Mentalist,” which have been winning their timeslots among adults 25-54 while standing among the top five series on television in total viewers.

The net seems to be the only network that understands auds haven’t given up on traditional comedies; they just want good ones. “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother” achieved series highs in December and “Two and a Half Men” posted its best numbers since taking over in its 9 o’clock timeslot in 2005.

CBS also wins Friday thanks to unsung “Ghost Whisperer,” and has ruled Wednesday with “Criminal Minds” and “CSI: NY.” A number of other shows perform adequately enough (“Numbers,” “Without a Trace”), helping spread the wealth throughout the week.

WHAT CHOKES: Among its five new series in the fall, only quickly-axed “The Ex List” and Monday comedy “Worst Week” has struggled. The net gave the funny half-hour a plum Monday slot, but the CBS aud never gave it a chance, and the Eye will replace it with the returning “Rules of Engagement” in March.

Another soft spot for CBS is its Wednesday hour of comedy (“Old Christine” and credible newbie “Gary Unmarried”), which despite so-so ratings has been competitive in a rather weak hour. It will be interesting to see if the net sticks with these shows now that Fox’s “American Idol” has invaded the hour.

If there’s another downside to CBS’ success, it’s that there aren’t many timeslots calling for a makeover. This may be a good thing now, but it could be a detriment in the near future if the net isn’t aggressive in trying new programs in place of tiring but still popular shows like “Cold Case” and “Numbers.”

BIGGEST MIDSEASON HOPE: CBS appears to have one of spring’s most intriguing new concepts in “Harper’s Island,” which has been described as Agatha Christie meets “Scream.”

If executed properly, it has a good chance at being a crime show that attracts some youngsters as well. Certainly having “CSI” as a lead-in on Thursdays will help get it noticed.

BIGGEST NEED: A year ago, this might have been a hot reality show to keep up with those on its rivals, but with no new entry on any net emerging of late, the pressure is off.

What CBS really needs is a water-cooler show, so why not a smart, Middle-America soap? You’d think the network of “Dallas” and “Young and the Restless” could come up with a buzzworthy hour — perhaps at a reasonable price, too, if it went with lesser-known stars.

BOTTOM LINE: With such balance throughout the week and so little to fret about, there doesn’t appear to be anything standing between CBS and another winning season.

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