CBS Gets Youth Implants

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Watching the triumph of CBS is a little like seeing your grandmother dump your grandfather, get a tummy tuck and a boob job and start dating guys younger than you. A few years ago, the network was a haven for older viewers, who came to it for "60 Minutes" and "Murder She Wrote." Then it started augmenting them with watercooler hits like "Survivor," "CSI" and "The Amazing Race," and young viewers began to paralyze CBS's saggy tissue like so much botulinum toxin, smoothing the wrinkles away.

Now it's ready to kick the codgers into the street. At a breakfast press conference this morning, Viacom co-president Leslie Moonves seemed almost as proud of the shows he was canceling as the new ones he was announcing. The goners—among them, "JAG," "Joan of Arcadia," "Judging Amy"—had some of the oldest audiences on broadcast TV, and Moonves was not shy in saying that this was a major reason they went.

That also went for the old-skewing "60 Minutes II," whose cancellation was announced today. CBS anticipated press coverage connecting the axing to Memogate, but Moonves, and the network's PR execs insisted it was the show's numbers—not its superscript letters—that did it in. And you know what? I suspect they're telling the truth. I just love that we now live in an age when, for public-relations reasons, a network will stand up and proudly insist that it killed a news program because of ratings, demographics and money.

The was no mention of the newsmagazine at the CBS gala at Carnegie Hall, only boasting about how the network would get "stronger, better, younger." CBS projected an aura of confidence, swagger and good cheer. And because the greatest cheer of all comes from kicking your enemies when they're down, they invited the makers of puppet musical "Avenue Q" to roast their rivals. Sang a puppet Rupert Murdoch, "If you want turmoil, take a look at Fox/ Where shows like 'Jonny Zero' lie there like a plate of lox."

And if you want straight-ahead predictability, take a look at CBS's fall schedule, heavy on new versions of what's already working. Namely, crime dramas. Jerry Bruckheimer landed "Close to Home," his sixth crime show for CBS, in addition to "The Amazing Race," upcoming dramas on NBC and The WB, and he'd like to talk to you about producing your kids' school pageant next fall.

"Close" is about suburban crime—"the crimes that happen to the people who live next door." It shamelessly plays off the security fears of people in secure neighborhoods, freaked out by child-snatching and murdered-bride frenzies--which is to say, it will probably be another big hit. "Criminal Minds," meanwhile, is a moody, talky-seeming procedural about FBI profilers starring Mandy Patinkin, who, sadly, did not bust out into a Sondheim number. (Something from "Sweeney Todd" would have been fitting.)

For all the glee Moonves takes in bashing NBC, he made a point of likening both his new sitcoms to NBC shows. He described "How I Met Your Mother" as "'Friends'-like," though—unusually for an upfront—the show looks less derivative than he made it sound. It's a romantic comedy, narrated by a father who, a couple decades from now, is telling his two children how their parents hooked up. This is not exactly experimental theater—there are your typical young-adult-sitcom scenes in bars and bistros—but it seemed sweet-hearted without being sappy. "Out of Practice," from two "Frasier" creators and directed by Kelsey Grammer, follows a squabbling family of doctors and seemed more sour than scintillating. This is Demographic Programming 101, folks: if you want young, rich viewers, make comedies about young people and doctors.

CBS signed Jennifer Love Hewitt for "Ghost Whisperer," in which J-Love communicates with ghosts and helps them find closure. Clearly the 25-year-old actress is meant to draw the young folks, although the treacly tone and premise seem to appeal more to 75-year-olds still longing for "Touched by an Angel." Let's split the difference and call the audience age 50, the approximate age of all the creepy men who will tune in to watch her awaken startled from nightmares in her clingy bedclothes.

Finally, the network takes a mild risk with "Threshold," a sci-fi chiller about a body-snatchers-style alien invasion, a very similar premise to ABC's "Invasion," and not too far removed from NBC's sea-creature-feature "Fathom." Said Moonves, "Ours is better. Well, I shouldn't say that because I haven't seen the other two. But why not, we're talking hyperbole this week."

And Aretha Franklin performed. That's not much of a segue, but her appearance at the end of the show was pretty much a non sequitur itself. (Last year, The Who performed, because the "CSI" franchise uses their songs.) The First Lady of Soul sang "Respect," the connection of which to CBS's sales message was, apparently: (1) what you [advertisers] want, baby, CBS has got it, and (2) CBS "respects" its viewers and the advertising community.

She belted the song admirably, closing her eyes, presumably to pretend she was at the Apollo, in front of an audience that was not fidgeting with its Blackberries and waiting anxiously to go to Tavern on the Green for free cocktails and shrimp. She held out her mike to the crowd to sing along with the "Find out what it means to me" line, but was met with stone silence.

You can discover a lot of amazing things at the upfronts: a proud first-place network reduced to fourth-place groveling, a chubby drama writer dancing and belting out a show tune, a once-geriatric network now keeping company with a "Party of Five" star. But finding soul in a roomful of ad executives? Not even just a, just a, just a, just a little bit.