NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Over at CBS, offbeat is off the schedule.
In the past few years, CBS has used upfront week to unveil something a little off-kilter, experimental or quirky. It tested a singing Hugh Jackman in "Viva Laughlin," a small town grappling with nuclear holocaust in "Jericho" and a couple of families from the '70s coming to grips with the sexual revolution in "Swingtown."
Next season, however, is very reassuring -- and it's all very deliberate, part of a must-win formula that ad buyers and Wall Street analysts attribute not only to the network's entertainment executives but also to CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.
"Les Moonves is very much a hands-on manager, and just is really involved in the consistency of the programming grid," said Michael Nathanson, a media-industry analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. At stake: the continued good health of the CBS network, the financial driver of its parent company. Successful programs can drive more revenue in syndication and international distribution, whereas middling on-air performers don't help. What's more, CBS is less insulated from fluctuations in ad spending than rivals such as Time Warner, News Corp. and even NBC Universal, all of which have multiple cable outlets to provide revenue.
Steady and reliable appears to be working. Between Sept. 1, 2008, and May 17, 2009, CBS has been able to win more ad dollars than its broadcast-network competitors, according to TNS Media Intelligence. CBS secured about $4.03 billion during that time period, TNS said, while ABC took in about $3.67 billion, NBC lured about $3.02 billion, Fox received about $2.99 billion and the CW took in about $361.9 million.
"Because it's so important, CBS is thinking about ratings more than other guys," Mr. Nathanson said.
Ratings trump critics
Indeed, as CBS will be happy to tell you, the network posted an 11% increase in total viewers for the 2008-2009 season, while notching a 3% gain in viewers between 18 and 49 and an 8% gain in adults between 25 and 54. Its challenge for next season will be to maintain that audience. When asked whether ratings or critical acclaim is more important, Nina Tassler, president-CBS Entertainment, is clear on the choice: "Ratings, ratings, ratings," she said.
So gone are experiments like "The Ex List," a drama from 2007 that tried to lure females on Friday nights. You'll see no sci-fi cult favorites like "Jericho" or vampire-drama "Moonlight" on CBS's schedule (you can instead find vampires on CBS's lower-rated sibling, the CW). And don't even imagine you'll tune in to a program like "Love Monkey," a clever drama about a single music executive that found critical acclaim, if not mass ratings, on CBS's air for a few weeks in 2006.
This fall, CBS is launching "NCIS: Los Angeles," a spinoff from the already popular "NCIS," which will air right after the original on Tuesday nights.
Also on Tuesdays, CBS will debut "The Good Wife," about an attorney who must start anew after her politician husband gets caught in an illicit affair. A preview of the series shown during CBS's upfront presentation in late May seemed to play off news events involving former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. "Three Rivers," a medical drama about a Pittsburgh transplant team, will air on Sundays. A new Monday comedy, "Accidentally on Purpose," seems to echo the plot of hit surprise-pregnancy movie "Knocked Up."
More surprising, perhaps, CBS is picking up "Medium," a veteran show that has aired on NBC for the past several seasons. CBS owns it, and keeping it on air could help boost its post-TV fortunes. It's pairing it on Friday nights with the similarly themed "Ghost Whisperer."
While there are no big "What are they thinking?" maneuvers on the autumn grid, Ms. Tassler believes her audiences greet CBS's programs with as much passion as fans do of "Gossip Girl."
"Certainly, the numbers reflect the audience has made a commitment to the show," she said. "These are big suspense thrillers. Audiences have a very cathartic response to the programs."
Buzzy shows such as NBC's "30 Rock" may get lots of talk on Twitter, but advertisers still depend on broadcast-network TV shows to reach 8 million, 10 million, 12 million people in one fell swoop. CBS has less room for error these days as it figures out what to put on its own air -- and depends less on seasonal attention-getters on the order of Fox's "American Idol" or ABC's "Lost."
Its strategy "has stood the network in good stead, generally keeping CBS competitive throughout the season," said Steve Sternberg, exec VP-audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna, in a recent research note. "But it also makes it more important for CBS's regular scripted series to continue performing well."
In these times of economic difficulty, consumers may seek fewer programs that require a commitment to watch every single week, said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas' MPG. "CBS is a nice relaxing bath with a big glass of wine for their viewers, rather than the edge-of-the-seat, I-need-to-be-stimulated."
CBS is "safe, and I think right now, people like safe. There's something comforting in just sitting back and not having to worry," he said.
Additionally, viewers who flock to trendier programs often are lured in by the hot factor and don't stay for the long haul, said Jeff McCall, a professor of communications at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Broad audiences may prefer scripted fare that is "more like a movie, as opposed to watching something that's a game show or something's that's a reality show or something's that's kind of goofy" and can be found on lower-rated rivals, he said. As long as CBS is willing to live with an audience that is older than those of its competitors, he added, "I wouldn't upset the apple cart if I were them."
Meantime, CBS isn't restricting itself to procedurals and sitcoms, said Ms. Tassler; the network is willing to stray from its formula. Humor is an integral part of "NCIS," she said. The characters in last season's freshman drama "The Mentalist" are "quirkier" than has been the norm, she added. "Certainly, you push the envelope," she said, although having big rated shows is "something still at the top of our list."