The network known for its solid, stable schedule is now looking to add another “s”-word to its programming vocabulary: sexy.
Poised to finish a fifth consecutive season as TV’s most-watched net, CBS execs could have easily ordered up more of the meat-and-potatoes crime dramas that put them on top. Instead, they’ve assembled a development slate filled with the sort of swing-for-the-fences ideas normally associated with a net desperately plotting a comeback.
There are still plenty of dead bodies in the Eye’s future. But this year, the corpses are taking the form of zombies, vampires and demons.
“We went into this development season saying, ‘Let’s throw out the rulebook’,” says CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler. “We have an incredibly strong schedule. What better time to take risks … and try some really surprising and unique projects?”
Tassler also knows that, despite the Eye’s solid standing, its schedule is populated by aging hits, from “Survivor” and “Two and a Half Men” to Thursday night signature skein “CSI.”
While newer shows such as “Criminal Minds,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Rules of Engagement” have added fresh blood to the lineup, what CBS really needs as it challenges Fox for demo supremacy is a big, splashy hit that attracts both young adults and advertisers.
The challenge for Tassler is refreshing the sked without exploding the CBS brand, alienating the net’s loyal core in the process.
Nobody at the net wants a repeat of 1995, when CBS tried to get real young, real fast with twentysomething sudser “Central Park West.” Effort bombed, leaving the net with even fewer viewers — young or old.
Luckily, what the CBS sked lacks in sizzle it makes up for in breadth. Eye has at least one success story every night of the week, and very few black holes.
“We need new hits just like everybody else, but the difference is, I think we’ve got a better support system to (launch) those new hits than the other guys,” argues CBS scheduling and strategy supremo Kelly Kahl.
While Kahl and other CBS execs refuse to discuss even hypothetical sked moves in advance of the upfronts, the net’s needs are obvious.
Tuesday at 10 remains wide open, following the net’s back-to-back fall flops (“Smith,” “3 Lbs.”). Wednesdays could also see some change, perhaps with an hour of comedy.
“We went into (development) season saying we would love to open up another night of comedy,” Tassler says, declining to say just what nights might be in play.
On Thursdays, CBS has to decide whether to keep the decently performing “Shark” behind “CSI,” or use the prime real estate for something splashier. It might even do both, choosing to have two shows share the slot.
Most insiders consider “Close to Home” a goner on Fridays despite decent ratings, opening up an hour on the night. And while “Amazing Race” might return for another cycle, there’s a good shot CBS will use 8 p.m. Sundays to try out a new show.
Most years, a Joel Silver-produced drama about a private eye who also happens to be a vampire would easily qualify as the Eye’s “out there” pilot. But this spring, “Twilight” is just one of several shows that might make Tassler’s traditional-leaning boss Leslie Moonves go “hmmmmm” when he screens them.
On the fantasy/sci-fi side, “Babylon Fields” is an hour Tassler describes as ” ‘Ordinary People’ meets ‘Day of the Living Dead.’ ” In other words, yes, there are zombies — but the show’s also about personal relationships, and what happens when the ex-wife you thought was dead suddenly is back in your life.
Then there’s “Demons,” the Joe Roth-produced drama from “Joan of Arcadia” creator Barbara Hall. It’s about a priest waging war with Satan on more than one front.
More grounded (well, sort of) contenders include “Swingtown,” a drama set in the 1970s that explores what happens to families when couples swap partners.
There’s also “Viva Laughlin,” a new take on a Blighty series about a Nevada casino owner who’s flying by the seat of his pants. The upshot: Every once in a while, the characters break out in song.
As far-out as some of the drama concepts might seem, Tassler cautions that there’s not as much difference as there might seem between these new ideas and, say, “CSI.”
“Within even our more outrageous choices, there is at the core a relatability,” she says. “That’s a significant part of all our shows. They need to have characters that are flawed, that are identifiable. Audiences have to be able to look at a character or circumstances and say, ‘That could be me, or that is someone I know.’ ”
Eye’s mandate to innovate extends even to more common ideas. There’s an untitled legal drama starring comic thesp Janeane Garafalo, and crime-themed possibilities toplined by LL Cool J and Stephen Dorff.
“Even with shows that seemed like more traditional franchises, we enthusiastically went after elements that would surprise,” Tassler says.
Eye is also aggressively looking to find some desperately needed reality hits. Having started the reality craze with “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race,” it hasn’t launched an unscripted smash since.
Tassler says bringing back Ghen Maynard to oversee the net’s reality slate has resulted in a slew of new concepts. She won’t talk details, but industry insiders say Maynard has more than 15 possible players in the mix.
Some, like Mark Burnett’s “Pirate Master,” will get an early launch in the summer.
Comedy-wise, CBS continues to have plenty of multicamera options — but it’s also venturing into single-cam territory with the provocatively titled “Fugly” (which may be eventually get a new name), a half-hour about siblings who move to Hollywood.
There’s also “1321 Clover,” a family comedy that will be shot documentary style.
Also getting some buzz is “I’m in Hell,” both for its star (Jason Biggs) and its concept (selfish man dies and literally gets a new lease on life). And Chuck Lorre, creator of the Eye’s top-rated “Two and a Half Men,” has teamed with Bill Prady for “The Big Bang Theory,” in which Average Joes get to hook up with very hot women.
THE QUESTION MARKS
Toughest decision facing CBS suits is what to do with “Jericho,” the spooky Wednesday drama that’s got a decent dose of buzz but just so-so ratings. Execs have been pleased with its creative direction, so it’ll be interesting to see how much patience the usually trigger-happy net has with a show it loves.
Another show with some critical support, laffer “The Class,” is a much longer shot. Its fate almost certainly rides on whether CBS decides to air comedies on a night other than Monday.
And, since CBS hasn’t actually picked up any shows for next season (save for two more editions of “Survivor”), a bunch of its shows remain (technically) on the bubble: “The Unit,” “Old Christine” and even “How I Met Your Mother.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Given how heavily it’s invested in riskier fare, change is almost certainly coming to CBS this fall. The real question will be how much of Tassler’s slate gets the go-ahead from CBS Corp. supremo Moonves.
Moonves is proudly old-school when it comes to programming. But after some initial cautiousness about new media, the exec has transformed the Eye into one of the market leaders when it comes to embracing new technologies.
Whatever choices the net makes, Tassler thinks CBS is ready to evolve.
“We really have the strength and flexibility to really look at adding some surprising elements to the schedule this year,” she says.