Moonves has the coveted executive talent of managing to be self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating at the same time. Here's the always-quotable Moonves, Wednesday morning, on CBS's fall schedule: "I like these shows. I would watch" pause, winkingly "most of these shows." On NBC head Jeff Zucker, who has a penchant for claiming credit for NBC successes that preceded his running the network and who bragged earlier this week about having the rights to the 2004 Olympics: "He invented the Olympics, didn't he? 'Friends' and 'E.R.' too." And on CBS' big May miniseries, about the leader of the Third Reich: "We're very proud of Hitler. Oops, don't print that... Jesus! That's a career killer!"
All very funny. And the bacon was delicious.
It's a good thing Moonves was providing the entertainment, because what he had to announce for fall was an awful lot like what CBS already has on the air, never a good way to excite critics. There's a "JAG" spinoff. A cop show in the "CSI" mold. And then another cop show this after CBS already added four cop dramas to its schedule last year. But who can blame them? Two of those 2002 shows "CSI: Miami" and "Without a Trace" were the top-rated new dramas on TV, though "Miami" was a direct "CSI" clone and "Trace" might as well have been. "There's a lot of crime," said Moonves, "but it's still working." He even noted that viewers might confuse the "JAG" spinoff, "Navy CIS" (or possibly "NCIS"; the network hasn't decided) with "CSI" but hey, that's a problem? Not in the TV business. CBS begin its pitch to advertisers at Carnegie Hall with a several-minutes-long salute to its news division's coverage of the war in Iraq. The journey from world crisis to sales pitch is a short one. Dan Rather, brought out on stage with several of his colleagues, said the coverage was important because it "[showed] viewers the performance of our heroic fighting men and women." Objectivity may still be important in the anchor chair, but it doesn't sell ads.
So about those cop shows. The network seems to have its highest hopes for "Cold Case," from "CSI" producer Jerry Bruckheimer, now indisputably the producingest producer in all of television. Like Bruckheimer's "Without a Trace," it also adapts "CSI"'s slick look and procedural approach, in this case to cases that are decades old. The pilot, in fact, appears to be based on the Martha Moxley murder, except that the young girl was bludgeoned with a tennis racket and not a golf club. That makes it creative. The premise allows for a lot of neat period flashbacks involving long straight hair and bellbottoms: it's that '70s cop show! "The Handler" casts Joe Pantoliano whom the network promoted as a screen legend slightly above the level of Russell Crowe running a unit of undercover Feds. And the aforementioned "NCIS" not only has a similar name to "CSI" but borrows its look as much as any Bruckheimer show, despite technically being a spinoff of "JAG." It may mark the first time a network has cloned two shows at the same time.
So firmly is the network in thrall to all things criminal that even its two non-cop dramas have a police angle. In "Joan of Arcadia," a teenage girl is haunted by visions of God, who appears to her in the form of random people she meets. And her dad is the town chief of police. The trailer included, natch, Joan Osborne's "One of Us" ("What if God was one of us?") and because one of the first times Joan sees God he actually is a stranger on the bus, one gets the creepy feeling the pilot was actually based on the Joan Osborne song.
Meanwhile, David E. Kelley returns to CBS for the first time since "Chicago Hope" with "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," a title so singularly stupid it proves Kelley's continuing power as a producer, even after several ratings failures, that nobody forced him to change it. It follows three small-town brothers who used to be local hockey stars (shades, unfortunately, of Kelley's hockey-movie flop "Mystery, Alaska") and are now dealing with life as paunchy middle-aged small-town guys. Starring Randy Quaid, the trailer evinced a humor that didn't lurch into the forced weirdness of so many recent Kelley projects oh, and Quaid plays the local chief of police. How good is it? Quaid came on stage to say it's the best one-hour drama he's ever seen. Surely he wasn't exaggerating just because he's in it, or he'd have said it was the greatest work of fiction in the history of language. Let's just say it will be better than "girls club."
CBS announced only two comedies this year, including a new addition to its Monday-night heterosexual-guys-with-kids block. (The childless "King of Queens" will move to Wednesday.) "Two and a Half Men" stars Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, a lovely comic actor who has yet to meet the show he can't have canceled out from under him. One's a swinging bachelor jingle writer guess which and Cryer's his poor schnook brother whose wife has left him, forcing him to move himself and his 10-year-old son in with Charlie. Expect lots of scenes of Charlie getting perspective on his shallow existence, "About a Boy"-style.
On "The Stones," Jay Baruchel and Lindsay Sloane, the winsome stars of the dearly-departed "Undeclared" and "Grosse Pointe," respectively, play young adults dealing with the late-life divorce of their parents (Robert Klein and Judith Light). From the producers of "Will & Grace," it had the funniest dialogue of any sitcom trailer unveiled so far this week. But Klein just about undermined its goodwill by coming onstage afterward to do a creepy standup routine that made fun of homeless people and Joan Rivers' aging looks. (Check out a mirror sometime, you spring chicken.)
CBS too did the same we're-not-about-cheesy-reality-shows dance the other networks have, apparently counting on the trauma-induced amnesia that set in after "Star Search" ended. Still, Moonves said at breakfast that Arsenio's talent show may be back. And in the end, the most exciting news CBS had was about reality: the second edition of "Survivor" next season will be a "tournament of champions" pitting the likes of the Amazon's Rob and Pulau Tiga's Richard against each other in the ultimate could-Superman-beat-the-Hulk showdown.
No word on whether they'll also work a murder mystery into this "Survivor" edition, but I'm sure Jerry Bruckheimer is working on it.
Tomorrow: UPN and Fox