Upfront Scorecard: CBS Rolls Dice on Becoming the New ‘Must-See TV’

Eye network revels in No. 1 status with aggressive comedy push, drama moves

Mom (Warner Bros.)

CBS was so eager to start boasting about being No. 1, its upfront presentation began promptly at 4:01 p.m. ET, which is virtually unheard of. Advertisers straggling in late might have even missed the sweet tribute to the upcoming final season of “How I Met Your Mother,” once again demonstrating why networks like using the “Les Miserables” soundtrack in their presentations.

In some respects, that sense of urgency was understandable. In others, they might have wanted to wait a little longer.

SEE ALSO: CBS Expands Thursday Comedy Block, Shuffles Dramas

The Eye network’s big gamble for the fall involves expanding to a second comedy four-stack on Thursday night, essentially seeking to drive reeling NBC into the ground and formally claim the valuable suck-up-all-that-movie-marketing-cash “Must-See TV” mantle for itself. Yet judging the network’s quartet of new sitcoms by their cutdown clips, CBS only made it halfway there.

Oddly, for a network that has performed so well with multi-camera half-hours, both of its new shows in that format, Chuck Lorre’s latest “Mom” and Greg Garcia’s “The Millers,” looked completely flat, despite stellar casts. By contrast, the single-camera “We Are Men” produced a couple of genuine laughs and has the potential to provide a sturdy bridge between “How I Met Your Mother” and “2 Broke Girls,” while the Robin Williams vehicle “The Crazy Ones” — also single camera, and from producer David E. Kelley — had moments, although its prospects will largely depend on one’s tolerance of Williams’ rat-a-tat schtick.

As usual, the network’s real strength comes from its stability, which fosters the ability to target changes and shrewd scheduling moves. In that regard, the real switch that will bear watching involves moving “Person of Interest” — clearly the cream of CBS’ procedural crop — to Tuesdays at 10 p.m., where it has the potential to be especially dominant behind the “NCIS” combo.

Similarly, “Hawaii Five-O” feels like a good fit for Friday nights, opening the door to a pair of dramas that will share the 10 p.m. timeslot on Monday: “Hostages,” a limited-run serial with a strong cast (Toni Collette alone would qualify), and “24”-like vibe; and “Intelligence,” starring “Lost’s” Josh Holloway, which is essentially just another twist on the genre CBS has mined with “The Mentalist” and “Elementary.”

Even if the Thursday gambit doesn’t pay off, in other words — and “The Big Bang Theory” is such a titan it can’t flop entirely, even if the new shows falter in the order of “$#*! My Dad Says”– CBS has a lot of strength spread throughout the week, as the network kept reminding you. And then, you know, reminding you again.

Elsewhere, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves couldn’t resist needling NBC for its unwelcome dramas in latenight and the morning — with awkward baton passes on “Today” and “The Tonight Show” — while David Letterman made a rare upfront appearance, suggesting he’s perhaps more engaged for the next chapter of the latenight wars. With Jay Leno gone come February, one suspects the prickly host relishes the opportunity to maybe go out on top.

There’s no question CBS has an edge heading into next season, and the network exhibited a playfulness at its upfront presentation (including flashing subliminal messages on sales chief Jo Ann Ross’ skirt) that reflected its confidence.

Moonves even subtly channeled Ronald Reagan, of all people, in citing CBS’ demographic success — having notched its first adults 18-49 win in more than 20 years — saying, “When making your buys, please, don’t hold our youth against us.” (Reagan used a similar line in a debate with Walter Mondale.)

Hold CBS’ youth against it? Never. Its comedies? Maybe.

Preliminary grade: B

(Upfront presentations are graded on a curve, so all evaluations are subject to revision at the end of the week.)