For the past 13 weeks, we’ve spent every Wednesday taking a look at each of the major film studios and, when we were through with them, the top indie distributors. Now that the calendar has turned and we’re into fall, we will turn our eye to the major broadcast and cable networks, discussing and analyzing them as we did the film companies, a project that will take us through the end of the year.
We’re going to start with CBS which, not so long ago, was a last place network. A bad joke that was hemorrhaging viewers, and giving the impression that those it kept were all senior citizens. But two things occurred that changed things. The first was the rise of Les Moonves, and the second was achieving an understanding of what its viewers really wanted. Very quickly, the Tiffany Network became the most-watched network on broadcast television, bolting to the top spot in ratings and total viewers, where it has stayed for 13 of the last 14 years, including the last eight in a row.
How has the company done so well that it set a record with $3.9 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015, and actually saw those numbers rise through 2016, to the point where the CBS corporation reported a 2.1 percent rise in revenue last quarter? Even as broadcast television is under increasing assault by cable and, more to the point, streaming services, CBS continues to make money, and while its sports and news divisions make up a good deal of that, it’s the prime time lineup that we’ll primarily be discussing here.
Not for nothing is Moonves considered one of the most powerful men in show business. It’s under his stewardship, after all, that all is this has happened. He joined the network as president of CBS Entertainment in 1995, eventually becoming chairman and CEO in 2003, around the time this dominating run began, doing so well that it split off from parent company Viacom on December 31st, 2005. There’s been no looking back.
What’s behind the success? Well, for starters, there is the discovery of a certain type of procedural drama and an ensuing reliance on the concept. The starting point is October 6th, 2000, because that’s the night that CSI: Crime Scene Investigation premiered and became an instant smash. Several spinoffs followed, which made the network billions, but an even bigger hit emerged as a spinoff from the medium-sized hit JAG, in the form of NCIS. It has only been the top-rated drama on television each of the last four years, and has two spinoffs of its own to speak of.
Three fruits of the same tree in the top two dozen shows is a pretty good cornerstone, even better when you consider that encore showings of the NCIS mothership is in the top 20. Add in similarly structured programming like Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds (which has a spinoff of its own), Hawaii Five-0, and Scorpion, the evergreen ratings giant that is 60 Minutes, and the politically-themed melodrama Madam Secretary, and that makes up 10 of the top 25 shows on primetime. That’s 40 percent from one network, for the mathematically challenged.
Now, reading this, you might have thought that I’d forgotten two other key contributors to the network’s success, but you would be wrong. There’s also The Big Bang Theory, the most watched scripted show on television (behind only NBC’s Football Night in America, and by just about 20,000 viewers. Next to nothing, when you think about it), and the aforementioned sports programming Thursday Night Football. Those two finished the 2015-16 season as the second and fourth most watched shows on TV, combining for almost 38 million viewers, bringing the total to 12 of the top 25. Add in the seemingly ageless powerhouse that is Survivor and the stumbling, but still popular, Amazing Race and Big Brother, and it keeps looking rosier.
On top of all that, there are the ongoing relationships the network has with creators like Chuck Lorre (TBBT and Mom, as well as past hits Mike and Molly and Two and a Half Men), Robert and Michelle King (the current summer hit BrainDead and the multiple Emmy-winning The Good Wife, which just closed up shop after seven seasons), and Peter Lenkov (Hawaii Five-0 and the upcoming MacGyver reboot, more about that below), just to name a few, and there’s no reason to believe the juggernaut will be slowing down any time soon.
So, yeah, CBS has it pretty good right now. But that’s not to say everything is perfect. There are still more than a few flies in the ointment. The NCIS franchise is obviously in good shape, as the original has been renewed for another two seasons, and you have to figure that Blue Bloods will be around as long as Tom Selleck wants to play the New York police chief, but The Big Bang Theory might pack it in after this season, as it was renewed through season 10 three years ago, and guess what season is coming up?
There has been much speculation about what will happen, especially since the five main players on the show combine to earn $4.5 million per episode, making it the most expensive sitcom on TV. It’s also, obviously, the most popular, by leaps and bounds. How much more popular? The Big Bang Theory is the number two show on TV. The next sitcom in the ratings is Life in Pieces, another CBS show, at number 30. There are two more in the top 40. The first, at 33, is TBBT reruns, and the other is Mom, coming in at 40.
That’s right, there were exactly four sitcoms rated in the top 40 of the 2015-16 TV season, all of them were on CBS, and one was a re-run (sorry, encore presentation). There’s just no replacing a show with that much power, especially from scratch, which means the network would almost certainly be more than willing to keep paying out huge sums to the talent and creators of the show to keep it going. If, that is, that talent and those creators want to come back for more, which has yet to be determined.
On top of that, there are the misfires. A perfect example was the pricey Limitless, a sort of sequel to the hit 2011 Bradley Cooper film that was one of the top 10 most-watched new shows of last season, finished in the top 40 with an average of 9.8 million viewers per week, but was still canceled. Likewise, the highly touted Jane Lynch comedy Angel From Hell lasted only five episodes, the CSI franchise finally came to rest with the failure of CSI: Cyber, and Supergirl moved to sister network The CW because it was costing too much money and not enough people were watching it. Steve Colbert’s Late Show is faltering, even as James Corden’s Late Late Show is thriving, and the network’s other returning sitcoms (The Odd Couple, 2 Broke Girls) are not exactly setting the world on fire.
But that said, there’s something else that’s important to note here, as well. There were 197 shows on the broadcast networks last year that showed up in the Nielsen ratings. Of those, the lowest rated scripted CBS show was Rush Hour, at 88. That was canceled. Of returning shows, the lowest rated, first run program the network had was 2 Broke Girls, at number 54. That is one hell of a strong base.
And it’s that base which will support the return of three big comedy stars to the airwaves. Most obvious is Kevin James, who became a superstar on the network with The King of Queens, and is now returning with Kevin Can Wait, which appears to be exactly what his fans expect from him. New to the network is Matt LeBlanc, whose Man With a Plan underwent a major overhaul and a recasting of the female lead, and Joel McHale, with The Great Indoors, both of which look to be standard sitcom fare and nothing terribly new or innovative. Same with Bull, which brings former NCIS star Michael Weatherly back to the network with a show inspired by the life of Dr. Phil, and medical procedural Pure Genius, from the man behind Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, Jason Katims. All seem to be cut from the same, somewhat generic cloth, but the thing is, if you look at some of the most successful shows on the network, that’s CBS’ specialty.
The fall lineup relies on the strengths that put the network on top in the first place. A comedy block Monday nights, with TBBT and Scorpion anchoring it at 8 and 10, respectively, an NCIS-heavy Tuesday night, Survivor and Criminal Minds holding the fort Wednesday, then the NFL for six weeks before ceding the night to a second comedy block (also, eventually, to be anchored by TBBT, which will switch nights at the end of October), a trio of cop-like dramas Friday night, and a standard Sunday night, starting with 60 Minutes and including three veteran powerhouses in the form of NCIS: Los Angeles, Madam Secretary and Elementary.
The lineup is strong enough that, astonishingly, Monday is the only one night per week it might not win. The most competitive night of the week also features two other top 10 shows, those being Dancing With the Stars and The Voice, but otherwise, there’s no reason not to think that CBS will continue to run ragged over the competition.
It’s worth nothing, and this is perhaps a case of burying the lead, that not only has the Tiffany Network been dominant in overall ratings, but it actually won the coveted 18-49 demographic last year, as well as 25-54. So, while it might seem like some of the programming caters to the senior crowd, in fact, there is not one area in which CBS isn’t thriving in one form or another. In fact, the network’s own All Access streaming service, for just $5.99 per month ($9.99 without commercials), has it prepared for cord cutters, just as the other networks have done with Hulu. CBS, though, is self-sufficient in that area, yet another way in which it has set itself apart from the others.
CBS All Access
Development for next season is still just getting started, but there are a good half-dozen projects in the pipeline, including at least one comedy being considered for mid-season, the remake of the Australian series Furst Born, starring Poppy Montgomery and Katey Sagal, another new, untitled family comedy from How I Met Your Mother creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and the billionaire do-gooder drama Firewall, which already has a put pilot commitment. Clearly, the network is not afraid to take big swings.
Question marks aside — and there are always going to be some, no matter how well it’s all going — things couldn’t be much better. If TBBT decides to pack it in after this season, it will be an exceedingly difficult hole to fill, but the network’s base is otherwise so strong, it would take a lot to shake it loose from the top spot.
One final figure, which should really drive home the point of just how solid CBS’ status currently is: Fox finished in fourth place last season with an average of 5.777 million viewers per show. ABC was third with an average of 6.817 million, NBC was second, with an average of 8.108 million.
CBS averaged over 10.9 million viewers per show. The difference between CBS and NBC — first and second — was bigger than that between NBC and Fox — second and fourth. That, my friends, is called domination.
For more entries in our network series, click here.