Upfront Presentation Scorecard: CBS Wants NBC’s $$$

Read even slightly between the lines, and there was nothing at all subtle about CBS’ upfront presentation on Wednesday. Sure, the network touted its growth and (sometimes awkwardly) trotted out its stars, but the main point was this: NBC’s bailing out of the game as a major player with the Jay Leno move; give us their money.

Moonves CBS CEO Leslie Moonves set the tone, saying the real problem wasn’t with the network model but “not being able to find any hit shows for years” — a big F-U to NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker if there ever was one. Sales chief JoAnn Ross followed by belittling NBC’s comments about “managing for profit margins” instead of ratings. “Not keeping score might work in T-ball,” she said, but not the big leagues.

Finally, CBS Entertainment Prez Nina Tassler called the NBC shift at 10 p.m. “a sea-change,” and the Eye network has responded by making an aggressive push to dominate that hour on TV’s biggest night, moving first-year hit “The Mentalist” to Thursdays coming out of “CSI.” Even with “CSI” looking considerably weaker this season, that should create a formidable tandem.

In another smart strategic move, CBS will relocate “The Big Bang Theory” to follow “Two and a Half Men” on Monday nights, which should fortify the network’s comedy block and allow “BBT” — coming off a stellar sophomore year — to grow further, bolstering “CSI: Miami” as well as planning for the day when “Men” has hummed its last chorus.

For all that, CBS’ lineup remained conservative, including a few moves that take compatibility to almost comic extremes. “NCIS” leading into spinoff “NCIS: Los Angeles?” “The Ghost Whisperer” leading into the NBC transplant “Medium,” for a psychic overdose on Fridays? It might work, but it still fosters the impression that the older CBS audience is simply falling asleep in front of the TV.

Oh, and with apologies to LL Cool J, asking a guy to get up and rap in front of an audience of uptight media buyers in suits — urging them to stand up and wave their hands in the air — is never, ever a good idea.

In terms of the new shows, CBS has also stayed close to home, but with purpose. Julianna Margulies plays a lawyer (as she did in Fox’s “Canterbury’s Law”) but should be more at home in “The Good Wife,” and the hospital drama “Three Rivers” seems more conventionally “ER”-ish than most of the other medical franchises being introduced to vie for that title. Also, the reality show “Undercover Boss” seems especially well-timed and appears to have breakout potential.

All told, a pretty savvy lineup with a lot of meat-and-potatoes type programming, if nothing at first glance that warrants rushing out to buy a back-up TiVo. Moonves opened by joking about the fact that CBS wasn’t sexy, but that for him, winning is enough.

Of course, if that were completely true, the presentation would have skipped the rap number.

Overall grade, subject to revision: B

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