A wandering Eye

Net looks to diversify

This isn’t your father’s CBS — or even your older brother’s.

CBS still loves its top-rated crime dramas and broad-based sitcoms. But this year, net execs say they’re looking for more than what usually meets the Eye.

Already in the development pipeline: a 1970s period drama from Mike Kelley (“Jericho”) about wife swapping and the sexual revolution; a project about the women’s movement from Bruce Eric Kaplan (“Six Feet Under”); and a laffer from “Borat” scribe Ant Hines, among others.

With auds still scarfing down the net’s procedural-loaded primetime diet in droves, entertainment prexy Nina Tassler said it can now afford to chase projects that wouldn’t usually be deemed Eye-friendly.

“We are going to throw out the rule book,” said Tassler, who admitted that she’s faced an “uphill battle” convincing agents and studios to bring their edgier fare to CBS.

Of course, CBS has attempted to think out of the box before, but “Love Monkey” and, more recently, “Smith” came up short and elicited little patience from the Eye. Others, like “Jericho,” have fared better — but not nearly as well as the Eye’s procedural staples.

And until the net unveils its fall 2007 sked next May, there’s no guarantee that the unconventional skeins will actually make it on the air.

Still, with the Eye enjoying a long stretch of schedule stability, Tassler said the net is eager to step up efforts to find the next original hit.

Just this week, CBS made a big, seven-figure play to land the rights to a domestic version of the U.K. hit “Viva Blackpool” — a musical thriller featuring characters belting out top 40 songs (Daily Variety, Oct. 18).

“CSI” it ain’t.

“We’ve done some radical things in the past, but not as radical as we have this year,” Tassler said. “We have the opportunity now because of our stability and success to be a little more bold and different.”

That’s music to the ears of CBS’ critics, who have long complained that the net was too focused on gritty procedurals (so much so that it’s earned the nickname “Crime Broadcasting System”).

Traditional hits like “CSI” and “Two and a Half Men” have given CBS the luxury of searching for comedies and dramas outside the norm. And the return of alternative series topper Ghen Maynard to the network has jump-started its reality division, which (thanks to “Survivor”) fueled CBS’ last major creative renaissance in 2000.

“They don’t have much choice,” said one prominent TV agent. “I think all they have room for is one more successful show, so why not try a nonprocedural?”

Beyond “Blackpool,” Eye projects in the works for next season include “Swingtown,” a drama from UTA-repped scribe Kelley about the impact of sexual liberation in 1970s households — such as open marriages and “key parties.”

Alan Poul (“Big Love”) is aboard to direct the period piece, which Kelley describes as a cross between “The Ice Storm,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Wonder Years.” CBS Paramount Network TV is producing.

“While the script is not a memoir by any stretch, the story and characters were definitely shaped by the experiences I had and the people I met as a kid growing up off Chicago’s lake shore in the summer of 1976,” Kelley said.

As for the untitled Kaplan project, Tassler said she and her team first threw out the idea of developing a project inspired by Mary McCarthy book “The Group” and the film “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” with a dash of “Sex and the City.”

“As far as we’ve been saying that we want different kinds of shows, we have been aggressively developing our own ideas,” Tassler said. “The Group” is a book “that I carried around forever, a seminal novel about coming of age. Bruce and I started talking about the beginnings of the women’s movement, and he really responded to that.”

Besides “Six Feet Under,” WMA-repped Kaplan, who has a two-script deal at CBS Paramount Network TV, also worked on “Seinfeld.” He’s carved out a successful second career as a cartoonist, with his dry and witty panels regularly appearing in the New Yorker. Kaplan also has released two bestseller compilations of his work.

“I thought that there was no way they’d do something set in the ’70s about women; it was so not what I was expecting,” Kaplan said. “It’s an interesting arena that a network doesn’t normally go to, so I seized it.”

In comedy, Tassler said the net took a big chance this year with serialized laffer “The Class.” And although the performance of that show has been disappointing so far, the Eye remains the only major net with a four-comedy block in primetime — populated by two hits and a growing contender (“How I Met Your Mother”).

For next season, projects in the works include a script from Hines, whose credits also include “Da Ali G Show.” Hines is based at Sony Pictures TV, which would produce.

“The idea is still being discussed, but he’s got a very unique sensibility,” Tassler said.

Also, net is developing a laffer with British writer-director Victoria Pile, who created the eccentric U.K. comedy “Green Wing” and sketch series “Smack the Pony.”

In looking to expand their brand, Tassler said the net still remembers the lessons of 1995, when the Eye attempted to go younger overnight. Shows like “Central Park West” bombed, and the Eye lost a chunk of its core audience in the process.

It took several years — and a new regime under CBS honcho Leslie Moonves — to recover from that debacle. This time out, CBS execs stress that they see the diversification as an extension of a successful programming strategy, not a wholesale change in direction.

“You’re still going to hear the refrain that we’re a broadcaster first and foremost,” Tassler said. “But there’s no reason why we can’t have shows that have a stronger 18-49 appeal. I think the climate is perfect for something really unique and innovative.”