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‘The Big Bang Theory,’ Stephen Colbert and More: 5 Things We Learned at CBS’ Upfront

CBS held its annual upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, and it was notable for being the first in over two decades without former CEO Leslie Moonves. Instead, besides sales president JoAnn Ross, it was CBS chief creative officer David Nevins who opened the show, along with CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman, senior executive vice president, programming, CBS Entertainment.

Mentioned (to audience applause) but not on stage was acting CEO Joe Ianniello, whom Nevins touted as having “steadied the ship and guided it on a course.” Also on stage were late night hosts Stephen Colbert and James Corden, who made the requisite digs about CBS (Corden still can’t quite believe that anyone watches “Blue Bloods”). And new CBS News president Susan Zirinsky introduced her new anchor lineups: CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell, who takes over in the fall, and the “CBS This Morning” combo of Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil, who start on Monday.

“Now we are running into the future,” Zirinsky said. “We have the right people in the right places. The entire news organization feels energized.”

Here are a few more takeaways from the CBS upfront presentation:

Sports analogies are one way to reference the scandal that led to your CEO’s departure: CBS opened its upfront with a parody of its NFL pre-game show (which was actually a common trend this week at several presentations), hosted by announcers Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. Without mentioning Moonves by name, Nantz referred to “some changes at the top” in referencing acting CEO Ianniello. In keeping the sports analogy going, Nantz called the exec “downright Belichickian” — as in dominant New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Meanwhile, CBS’ “head of the offense,” Kahl, happens to hail from the same hometown as Romo: Burlington, Wis.

CBS saved the Moonves reference for Colbert: While everyone else hinted at the change of command, Colbert was the only person on stage to actually mention the name of CBS’ former CEO, who was forced out last year after allegations of past sexual misconduct. Colbert joked that CBS passed along a massive document detailing how well CBS performed this past year — but he decided to read Attorney General Bill Barr’s four-page memo instead. (No explanation of Barr’s Mueller report summary necessary.) “Les Moonves was totally exonerated!” he quipped. “I did not see that coming.”

Kelly Kahl has a ratings crystal ball: The exec isn’t just predicting another No. 1 season next year, he’s predicting CBS will end at No. 1 for the season after that as well. That’s because the Eye network will program the Super Bowl again in 2021, so it’s actually a pretty solid bet. Yes, that’s in total viewers, but Kahl and CBS argue that as young adult ratings continue to dramatically erode, attracting a big tent is even more critical. “Try finding demos at scale without broad reach,” he said, adding that CBS has been No. 1 or No. 2 among both adults 18-49 and 25-54 over the past decade.

“We serve a broad audience from all 50 states,” he said. “We cultivate and appreciate that audience coast to coast.”

Of course, Colbert has a theory on why CBS has done well over the past decade: “There are a lot of old people who don’t realize the TV in the basement has been on for over a decade,” he said. “No one tell them please!”

CBS is pushing its diversity efforts hard: After years of being knocked for a lack of representation on camera, the network made a point to lay out its initiatives to advertisers, starting with Ross stressing that the network is striving to “portray and empower women and people of color. We’re pushing for fairness and inclusion both in our programming and our business and our new shows really reflect that.” Later, “The Neighborhood” star Cedric the Entertainer also made sure to point out how his show strives to put “diversity and inclusion at the forefront.”

The Big Bang Theory” cast is getting emotional over their show’s end: After a sizzle reel featuring highlights from the sitcom’s lengthy run, the cast and executive producer Chuck Lorre hit the stage — and struggled to hide their emotion. Lorre reminded the audience that “Big Bang” almost didn’t happen after a disappointing first pass.

“Thirteen years ago we made a pilot, and around this time 13 years ago, [former CBS Entertainment president] Nina Tassler called me and said, ‘It’s not very good. Would you consider doing it again?’ To which I said, ‘Yes, thank you.’ And here we are.

“We realize how lucky we are,” he added to the audience of media buyers. “All you guys, I guess you buy advertising. It’s mostly drugs, I noticed. Regardless, thank you.”

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