CBS aims to spread hits

Analysis: Comedy play risky if new shows don't work

When it comes to the blueprint for making hit television, the Eye has it.

CBS knows the kinds of shows it wants, and executes and schedules them better than anybody. The result is more top-20 programs in key demos than its rivals, and the luxury — and confidence — of being able to fold new hits into its lineup as older shows (sometimes still performing fairly well) are phased out.

This fall marks something of a sea change for CBS, as the steady-as-she-goes net senses the time is right to shakes things up. In addition to launching five series, the Eye also must make sure auds know where to find two of its biggest hits, “The Big Bang Theory” and “Survivor,” which move to Thursday and Wednesday, respectively, in a bid to spread the wealth across the week.

But easily the net’s biggest bet this fall is in comedy — and at first glance, it’s looking rather risky.

In addition to the shift of “Big Bang” to an hour (Thursday at 8) where CBS hasn’t aired comedy in 40 years, neither of the net’s new entries (“Mike and Molly” on Monday and “$#@! My Dad Says” on Thursday) looks like a sure thing. And unlike recent years, when “Rules of Engagement” gave the Eye a familiar presence off the bench at midseason, there is no veteran comedy waiting to help out.

A lot rides, then, on “Big Bang,” which CBS sees as its best chance to open a prominent comedy block on a night other than Monday. The show took advantage of a timeslot upgrade last season (airing at 9:30 behind “Two and a Half Men”) to emerge as television’s top-rated comedy among young adults — and more than 80% of its audience should follow it to its new night.

But a move to establish a comedy block on Thursday really only works if the 8:30 show airing behind “Big Bang” can approach the same rating. And that’s where CBS is in trouble, as the pilot of the awfully titled “$#@! My Dad Says” suggests that the net is being generous when it refers to it as a “comedy.”

If “Big Bang” is doing a 4-plus demo rating at 8 and “Dad” drops off by 1 point or more, the net has not really improved itself over last year’s “Survivor.”

The “Big Bang” move also weakens Monday, which is now losing its hottest show at the same time its anchors, “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two and a Half Men,” are entering their sixth and eighth seasons, respectively. And if these 8 and 9 p.m. laffers drop off as expected, they’ll bring “Rules of Engagement,” the solid-enough show airing between them at 8:30 p.m., along with them.

New 9:30 comedy “Mike and Molly” has some sweet charm, but it’s unlikely to keep a good chunk of the “Two and a Half Men” aud from flipping over to “Dancing With the Stars” or “Monday Night Football.”

A key show at midseason for CBS will be new twentysomethings relationship comedy “Mad Love,” which likely will air Monday at 8:30 or 9:30 or Thursday at 8:30. Without a second comedy on the bench, CBS may also need to air repeats of existing half-hours in the 8:30 slot behind “Big Bang” — perhaps as early as November.

On the drama side, CBS still places more emphasis on “process” over “people,” but it has slowly evolved in that regard — first with more character-fronted skeins like “The Mentalist” and “The Good Wife” and then continuing this fall with the comedic legal series “The Defenders” and the family cop drama “Blue Bloods.”

And as is usually the case with CBS dramas, the shows end up looking considerably better onscreen than they do on paper.

It was easy, for example, to dismiss the net’s reboot of “Hawaii Five-O,” but it comes together pretty well onscreen. And the timing seems right too for a new/old kind of crime drama to replace “CSI: Miami,” as viewers have been tiring of the franchise’s cavalcade of cadavers.

“Hawaii” will face two other crime/action dramas on the other major nets (as well as football on ESPN), and the question is whether anything can break though at 10 o’clock. After all, there hasn’t been a big new 10 p.m. drama since “Grey’s Anatomy,” on Sundays in 2004.

“Defenders,” starring funnymen Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell, might not work, but credit the net — which has been criticized for its procedural, somber hourlongs — for zigging here when the other nets are zagging (NBC is offering up yet another “Law and Order” series while ABC is trying Jerry Bruckheimer legal newbie “The Whole Truth”).

The best of the new CBS shows is Tom Selleck-led Friday cop drama “Blue Bloods,” which should build nicely off its compatible lead-in from “CSI: NY,” moving over from Wednesday after declining in the ratings in recent years.

Some have questioned skedding it on such a low-wattage night, but if any show is going to work Fridays at 10, it figures to be something like “Blue Bloods.” The show also appears poised to draw viewers not only from the Eye’s own “CSI: NY,” but also from 9 o’clock shows “Body of Proof” on ABC and “Dateline” on NBC.

In the wings at midseason, the Eye will launch comedic CIA drama “Chaos,” bowing it perhaps behind the AFC Championship game in late January.

CBS remains strong on the reality front, with the Sunday combo of “Amazing Race” and “Undercover Boss” a great counter to the powerful “Sunday Night Football” on NBC. And “Survivor” won’t perform as well when it moves from its longtime Thursday slot, but it should be able to improve on the net’s Wednesday performance with comedies in the leadoff hour.

And while the CBS lineup on the whole looks fairly solid, the loss of shows like “Old Christine,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “Cold Case” may compromise the network’s gender balance — especially during premiere week, when Emmy-nommed newbie “The Good Wife” (already an odd fit on the Eye) won’t air.

It would be nice to see the net of “Lucy” and “Murphy Brown” discover the next big female comedy voice. (The net’s comedy king, Chuck Lorre, is inching closer with the new “Mike and Molly.”)

Overall, CBS seems to possess the best balance of drama, comedy and reality among the networks. And though it may take a step back in comedy this fall, its drama moves should allow it to emerge as the fourth-quarter ratings leader among adults 25-54.

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