Why CBS will shank its post-game kickoff

The Super Bowl may be months away, but there’s already been a fumble courtesy of host network CBS.

On Monday the Eye handed the coveted post-game timeslot to rookie drama “Elementary,” which is the wrong choice for an extremely valuable piece of primetime real estate.

Every network that airs the Super Bowl faces this decision: What show should get a lead-in from an event that reaches over 100 million viewers in the U.S. alone?

Choose wisely and suddenly a show can hit a whole new level, as NBC’s “The Office” did in 2009. Make the wrong move and you fritter away an opportunity: The Peacock picked “The Good Life” in 1994 only to see it die 13 episodes later.

The selection boils down to either giving a new series the shot of a lifetime or giving an existing property a shot in the arm. CBS went with the latter, and therein lines the problem: “Elementary” hasn’t displayed the kind of potential some other Eye assets have demonstrated.

And given how well CBS is poised for midseason, the network would have been best launching a new series, as it did so brilliantly in its last Super Bowl outing, in 2010, with “Undercover Boss.”

It’s not that CBS overlooked an obvious choice. As strong as CBS is coming into the 2012-13 season, its schedule has underwhelmed in the ratings to date. No new entry has demonstrated hit potential yet, and there’s been serious slippage on some returning shows.

But keep in mind that ABC and Fox aren’t exactly going gangbusters in the early going, and NBC’s growth is more easily achieved as its coming off a poorer performance last fall.

If there’s any network that knows how best to pump up a primetime property with the Super Bowl, it’s CBS. But picking a scripted drama runs counter to the strategy it has employed in three of its last four outings, which have gone to launching or boosting unscripted franchises.

In 2010, CBS gambled on launching “Undercover Boss,” and that series is still riding the momentum it got from that night as it progresses into its fourth season. “Survivor” might not have grown into the juggernaut it became had CBS not given over both the 2001 and 2004 postgame slots to the franchise.

The outlier is the 2007 showcase CBS gave another scripted drama, “Criminal Minds,” which was midway into its second season when it got the nod. There’s something to be said for waiting until a series can get more mileage out of primetime’s most powerful timeslot. ABC followed the same logic in 2006 with “Grey’s Anatomy,” which also got the nod midway into its second season.

But there’s nothing in the ratings performance of “Elementary” to suggest it has the kind of breakout possibility that can be achieved by maximizing its exposure. After starting with a strong 3.1 rating in the demo in its Sept. 27 premiere, it has ticked steadily downward before registering a slight rebound in its outing last week, which reached a 2.4.

That said, no ratings analysis is complete without factoring in live-plus-seven, and on that front “Elementary” has a nice, albeit not spectacular, story to tell. It’s added over a full ratings point in its first three outings, good enough to reach the highest supplementary number among new dramas and third among all dramas behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Once Upon a Time.”

But “Elementary” is putting up semi-respectable numbers in what may be the least competitive timeslot in all of primetime, Thursday at 10 p.m. That’s when NBC has basically hung an “out to lunch” sign with newsmag “Rock Center With Brian Williams,” and ABC isn’t being too aggressive, either, given that “Scandal” came into the season an unproven property.

That CBS is to not doing better in such a vulnerable timeslot says a lot about how lackluster “Elementary” is. CBS is winning that hour, but there’s no reason this series isn’t dominant.

There’s also only so much upside to be had at 10 p.m., when so many DVRs are in action that no live programming really has a chance to pop. That’s all the more reason CBS was better off giving the Super Bowl slot to something from the 8-10 p.m. period.

Two series from that two-hour block, “Person of Interest” or “2 Broke Girls,” were more deserving of a post-Super Bowl kickoff. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Elementary” drew the timeslot over those shows because the drama is a property of CBS TV Prods. while “Person” and “Broke” are Warner Bros. TV properties.

The Eye is simply putting some extra polish on a series on which its prodigious syndication machine will reap 100% value once put into the aftermarket pipeline. CBS’ syndie side may well sell this series in its very first season, as was done with “Hawaii Five-0.”

Keep in mind that this is no ordinary season for CBS. The Eye is heading into midseason with a massive promotional platform when you take into account that the Super Bowl, the Grammys and AFC championship game will air within weeks.

No wonder that before the season even began, Fox programming chief Kevin Reilly publicly speculated that CBS was liable to snatch away the 18-49 crown for the first time in nearly a decade.

So what better time for CBS to repeat its “Undercover” formula and give over the 10 p.m. hour on Feb. 3 to one of the series that could launch in the midseason? A piece of development announced last May, the Mark Burnett skein “Dream Job,” which pits contestants against each other for a job at companies, seems tailor made to break out in the manner of “Boss.”

With every unscripted project CBS put in development in recent months came the prospect that it was being eyed for the berth. In June came a pilot order for a gameshow based on the Zynga mobile game “Draw Something” from Sony Pictures Television, Ryan Seacrest Prods. and Embassy Row. More recently came an adaptation of the British format “The Great British Bakeoff.” But no dice.

Given the promotional arsenal CBS had in place for midseason, it’s tempting to speculate that the network kept its most promising new properties out of the fall for a less cluttered runway in the midseason. On the scripted side, comedy “Friend Me” and drama “Golden Boy” are two pieces that could have just easily been pressed into service after the Super Bowl for the greatest possible chance at success.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in CBS’ midseason development to know that they’ve all been passed over for what could have been a plum launch pad.

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