CBS was struggling with ratings and an aging demo before 'CSI' and 'Amazing Race' helped turn things around
Leslie Moonves knew in 2000 that CBS wasn’t where he wanted it to be, but he had a good idea of how he could turn his network around. And those plans included a liberal dose of successful filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer.
Moonves says Bruckheimer was “unbelievably creative and his movies were spectacular.” But there was more that was attracting Moonves’ attention.
“He had his finger on the pulse of what America really wanted to see,” says Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp. “He has a real American sensibility, a populist sensibility. I always wanted to convert him to a TV guy because I felt the sky’s the limit for him. And he bore that out pretty well.”
Before Bruckheimer, CBS was experiencing a slump and became associated with an aging audience. Due in part to Bruckheimer bringing two projects to the network — “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “The Amazing Race” — the Eye was able to attract a more youthful demo.
“There’s no question that CSI helped turn the tide of CBS back then,” Moonves says. “The single biggest move was putting ‘CSI’ and ‘Survivor’ on Thursday, which was the most important night both monetarily and perception-wise. It was a huge evolution for us.”
Not only was Moonves impressed with Bruckheimer’s instincts, but he was also impressed with his work ethic.
“What was amazing then and now is how involved he is,” says the network chief. “Even when he had seven shows on the air, he had seen every rough cut. He’s also very collaborative.
“He’s a superstar, but he likes other people’s input because he feels good ideas come from all over the place and he listens and puts the best ideas in place.”
Moonves counts Bruckheimer as both a valuable asset to the company and as a friend. “He is a quiet, thoughtful, decent man who has a humility about him not normally seen in this business,” the CBS honcho says. “It makes working with him much sweeter.”
As eager as Moonves was to get into business with him, Bruckheimer’s future producing partner Jonathan Littman was just as reluctant.
Littman passed on three meetings a mutual friend tried to set up with Bruckheimer before finally agreeing to meet with him — it was a cat-and-mouse game that puzzled Littman’s wife, to say the least.
“Sometimes you need smarter people in your life,” Littman says. “The first words out of Jerry’s mouth were ‘I love TV, I don’t know TV and I want people who will tell me.’ Knowing what you don’t know, owning that, well it was the first time I’d heard someone of his stature in Hollywood say that. Probably the first and the last time.”
The two had a healthy conversation for about an hour, and Littman realized then what his wife already knew: He would be crazy not to get into business with Bruckheimer.
Bruckheimer felt quite strongly that people watched TV with their thumb on the remote, and in order to stop them from clicking you had to provide something fresh and innovative. To him, that meant changing television from radio with pictures to making shows a visual storytelling experience.
“At the time, it was such a big change,” Littman says. “People don’t remember what TV looked like in 2000 and what it looks like now, and much of that was driven by Jerry.”
Littman humbly states he was simply in the passenger seat as Bruckheimer assembled the “CSI” team.
It quickly became a ratings behemoth, ranking in the top 10 for the first decade it aired, spawning two spinoffs and putting CBS on a course to become the place to see procedurals.
Bruckheimer added solid performers “Without a Trace” (2002), “Cold Case” (2003) and other series during his tenure.
“Jerry is fond of saying he hires great people and gets out of their way — but he’s really not that hands off,” says Littman with a laugh. “His personality is very low-key and he’s not in it to win fights. He truly loves to produce and knows when to intervene and steer the ship and when to let them do their work.”
Bruckheimer’s journey into reality programming with “The Amazing Race” reaped substantial rewards for CBS, with consistent solid ratings (averaging 3.0 among adults 18-49 and 10.4 million total viewers in the season that concluded in May) and critical acclaim.
“Amazing Race,” which premiered in 2001, has dominated the Emmys for reality competition program. From 2003, when the category was introduced, to 2012, only “Top Chef” in 2010 was able to interrupt Race’s astounding monopoly of Emmy wins.
When the Television Critics Assn. added the reality programming category to its awards in 2011, “The Amazing Race” was the first recipient.
“Besides being beautifully shot and dramatically edited, it took reality TV out of a static location,” says Andy Dehnart of Reality Blurred, who presented the TCA Award to Race. “It cast people who knew each other, which turned a mere contest into a heightened version of travel in unknown places with loved ones.”
Littman says that while the company is always looking for new reality shows, “Amazing Race” set the bar so high that matching it has been difficult. They would also like to get into comedy — a pilot based on Bruckheimer’s film “Beverly Hills Cop” was not picked up for this season despite early buzz.
Bruckheimer produced several pilots this season and while TNT passed on the drama pilot “Trooper,” the cable net grabbed unscripted series “Marshal Law: Texas” for late 2013.
Meanwhile, CBS opted to take on the innovative “Hostages” this fall.
The new series once again allows Bruckheimer the opportunity to be a game-changer.
“We’ve had a lot of success in closed-ended traditional network television, but we were eager to do something different and we thought this was the time to expand what we were doing as a company,” Littman says. “We are dominating in so much of the scripted procedurals, it was time to start growing. Like the HBO (long percolating “Cocaine Cowboys”) deal, it was a different thing for us so we can keep evolving. ”
Moonves says the highly serialized “Hostages” — a political thriller about a plot to kill the president starring Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott — is a departure from the CBS brand.
“It’s the first time CBS has done anything like this, but it’s such a heart-stopping and tension-filled show and I put my trust in Bruckheimer,” Moonves says. “24 and Homeland have done it, but this is very new for us.”
Moonves says he probably would have bought “Hostages” even if Bruckheimer hadn’t been attached to it, but sleeps “better at night knowing Jerry’s doing the show.”