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5 Takeaways From CBS’ Upfront

CBS kept broadcast week of upfronts rolling on Wednesday with its presentation at Carnegie Hall. Here are the five key takeaways:

1. Leslie Moonves is the CBS brand.

CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves took the stage and received a standing ovation from a sizable portion of the crowd, with others cheering and whistling. It was not a typical upfront reception for a TV exec. “So how’s your week been?” Moonves joked as he kicked off his pitch to advertisers.

Moonves’ week has seen him engage CBS’ controlling shareholder Shari Redstone in a shocking fight with the company’s future, and his own, at stake. But his upfront reception underscored one of Moonves’ most valuable assets in that battle — his track record of success and the clout that it has earned. And as Moonves illustrated when he noted that he has been CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl’s boss for 22 years, calling Kahl “one of the finest television minds anywhere,” the company’s senior leadership is made up almost entirely of Moonves loyalists.

If the results of recent legal maneuvers fail to break his way, this could be Moonves’ last upfront, with the entire culture of CBS poised to change. Or not.

2. CBS is finally making progress in inclusion.

The first three new series that CBS showcased at the upfront were introduced by their African-American stars — Cedric the Entertainer and “The Neighborhood”; Damon Wayans Jr. and “Happy Together”; and Brandon Micheal Hall and “God Friended Me.” Their appearances illustrated what appears to be long-called for progress in onscreen inclusion, where CBS has lagged the other broadcasters for years.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning ahead of the upfronts, Kahl and top programming exec Thom Sherman said increased onscreen inclusion had been a priority going into development season. Previous CBS execs have said the same, but this spring, CBS delivered on those promises in a way that it hasn’t before. The network’s fall schedule will include seven shows with people of color in lead acting roles.

3. Tony Romo is a TV star.

The sports division’s portion of the upfront began with a sizzle reel devoted to highlights from the still-young career of just one employee — NFL analyst Tony Romo. It was a testament to just how fast Romo’s star has risen since he left his NFL career for a role in the broadcast booth.

CBS took a risk last year when it unceremoniously booted veteran Phil Simms from the booth, then installed Romo, who boasted zero broadcasting experience. But the risk paid off. Romo earned rave reviews, driving social media conversations and generating buzz in a way that announcers rarely do. CBS clearly recognizes how valuable an asset he has quickly become.

4. Everything past is present.

As one reporter pointed out to Kahl and Sherman on Wednesday morning, CBS’ fall schedule includes five series that are either reboots, revivals, or spinoffs. The execs defended their lineup, saying that the creative community knows that they’re looking for “bold” programming. Sherman later confirmed that the network heard a pitch for Sony Pictures Television’s “Mad About You” revival and is discussing the possibility of picking it up.

Wednesday afternoon’s presentation at Carnegie Hall included two “I Love Lucy” references, two “All in the Family” references, and nods to “MASH,” “The Jeffersons,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It also featured the cast of the network’s “Murphy Brown” revival, whose star Candice Bergen strained to read off the teleprompter. The emphasis on successful brands from the past showed that CBS is one of the prime drivers of the reboot mania that has swept television, particularly broadcast.

5. Broadcast is king at CBS.

At the core of the fight between Moonves and Redstone over merging CBS with Viacom is Moonves’ vision for CBS — a focused company whose engine is a big broadcast network driven in part by retransmission fees from its stations. Merger with Viacom would weaken CBS’ position in retrans negotiations and shift the center of power at the company from the broadcast network to a sprawling portfolio of mostly struggling cable channels.

Kahl was talking about shifts in television toward digital and delayed viewing when he said, “Amid all this change, we have a very clear idea of who we are and where we’re going. CBS is a company that succeeds and believes in broadcast television.” But he may as well have been talking about the elephant in the room at Carnegie Hall.

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