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CBS Upfront Scorecard: Serving Up an ‘NCIS’-‘CSI’ Alphabet Soup

With its amalgamation of “NCIS” and “CSI” spinoffs on its new fall schedule, CBS appears to have resigned itself to being a butt of jokes within the TV industry, as well as accepting that a sizable part of the younger cohort advertisers crave will be watching only when visiting their grandparents. Still, the network also enjoys what is quite possibly the coup of the fall by having snagged a September-October package of Thursday-night NFL games, which should be the sort of ratings grabber – and breather for the network’s lagging comedies – that covers up a multitude of sins.

Even if it doesn’t work, there’s a foundational TV logic in everything CBS does, and almost all of its new shows — even if they aren’t direct brand extensions — look like dead ringers for the existing series with which they’ll be paired. So the new drama “Stalker” could just as easily be “Criminal Minds: Stalker,” and “Madam Secretary” — about a female Secretary of State, played by Tea Leoni — looks very much like “The Good Wife,” which it will join on Sunday nights.

“Strong lead-ins still matter,” said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, and because of its older profile, that’s especially true at the Eye network. Then again, a cynic could argue that replacing “NCIS: Los Angeles” (which moves to Mondays) with “NCIS: New Orleans,” or “CSI” with “CSI: Cyber,” amounts to having an audience base that might watch two or three episodes before realizing the difference.

The main negative for CBS has been its recent comedy performance, and the network was forced to shrink its footprint in that area, going to a single hour on Monday nights, leading into the new drama “Scorpion,” which, frankly, looks like a slightly snazzier version of ABC’s since-departed “Mind Games.” With “Two and a Half Men” heading into its final season, the pressure will be on for another half-hour to work, lest CBS be forced back to a single comedy four-stack, as the clock to capitalize on “The Big Bang Theory” ticks down.

There’s also something slightly confining about the CBS formula, which might explain why the network will hold “Battle Creek” — a series whose auspices include “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan — in reserve, since little in the clips suggested the show is a natural fit with its lineup.

In terms of pure showmanship, CBS’ presentation eclipsed earlier presentations by its broadcast rivals, hands down – from “The Good Wife’s” Alan Cumming appearing to perform a cleverly modified number from “Cabaret” to a classy sendoff to David Letterman, who made a rare upfront appearance to take the first of what should be many well-deserved victory laps. (Stephen Colbert was a no-show, but there’s plenty of time for that, and better to let Letterman have his moment in the spotlight.)

Competitively, CBS’ stability and the addition of football bode well for the fall. And while it’s hard to get terribly excited about a schedule with so many semi-colons in it, who knows? As long as there’s an audience that craves comfort food, there’s no telling how many American cities can look forward to eventually having their own “CSI” or “NCIS” franchise.

Preliminary grade: B


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