CBS: The World Looks Just the Same, and History Ain't Changed

  • Share
  • Read Later
The business of TV, you hear at the upfronts, is all about change. Changing schedules, changing genres, changing business models, changing technology. This is appealing to TV critics, of course, since we need new things to write about. And it's also appealing to the advertisers, since change is part of their business: convincing people that the car or computer or low-carb beer they bought last year is old news, and that they need to upgrade to the new model.

But change is also tiring, and that's why CBS comes as something of a relief in the middle of upfront week. True, the Eye network is not as stodgy as it was when it was best known for shows about 120-year-old former silent-movie actors solving crimes. But it is still the closest thing to an old-fashioned broadcast network we have: family sitcoms, "60 Minutes," sports and police procedurals — old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes, missionary-position TV. There are a few well-produced reality shows on CBS now, yes, but no "Extreme Makeover," no "The Swan." If anybody is going to get plastic surgery at CBS, it'll be the actors and actresses, off-camera, like God intended.

True to its spirit, CBS convened at Carnegie Hall Wednesday and announced "a rather conservative schedule," in the words of CBS president Leslie Moonves, who spoke to reporters at a press breakfast. There are three new dramas, one of which is another "CSI" — this one set in New York, where apparently they have crimes — which will take on "Law & Order" in a Big Apple murder showdown on Wednesday nights. ("I'm not even thinking of a fourth 'CSI,'" Moonves said dryly. "Not at least for another year.") There are only two new sitcoms, in part because they convinced Ray Romano to bravely suffer the indignity of making millions of dollars for a final, 16-episode season of "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Still, the network had to fill its presentation with something, and CBS spent much of its time trashing the competition. It started with a Beatles tribute band playing tunes like the following, referring to NBC president Jeff Zucker, who made a statement last year apologizing for the quality of some of his own shows:

(to the tune of "A Day in the Life")
I read the trades today oh, boy
Jeff Zucker said some of his shows had "sucked"...
If those shows made him yawn
Why in heaven's name did he decide to put the damn things on?

CBS then laid into NBC's longstanding claim to be the "quality" network, grossing out the advertisers with a reel of clips of contestants eating offal and vomiting on "Fear Factor." "Product placement, anyone?" Moonves asked. A few minutes later, they played a trailer for the new Jason Alexander sitcom "Listen Up" — he plays a sports columnist — whose big punch line involved Alexander spitting up milk into a glass, twice. CBS: home of classy effluvia!

The other new sitcom is "Center of the Universe," a family comedy starring John Goodman, who voices the lead character in NBC's new family sitcom "Father of the Pride." (He plays a lion there, but still.) "Center of the Universe," says Moonves, went over extremely well with test audiences, though that's usually just a synonym for "somebody famous is in the pilot." (CBS's Charlie Sheen hit, "Two and a Half Men," tested well — but so did "Emeril.")

Besides "CSI: NY," the network's new dramas are "Clubhouse," a sentimental-looking coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old boy who lands a job as batboy for the pinstripe-wearing "New York Empires" (the Yankees, for some reason, didn't want the weekly plug); and "dr. vegas" — e.e. cummings-esque capitalization intended — starring Rob Lowe as a casino doctor who handles a bizarre stream of cases. The Las Vegas tourist board must love the premise ("Come to Vegas and get a colorful injury!"), though, then again, "CSI" didn't hurt them ("Come to Vegas and we'll catch the guy who murders you!").

The most important news, at least to me, is that "The Amazing Race" — the best reality show on TV and perhaps the most perfect competition ever devised by man — is returning to the fall schedule, Saturday nights at 9 p.m. (The drawback: it was planned to run this summer, but they may hold the summer season for September.) On the flip side, for all you fans of "Yes, Dear" — the ratings tell me you actually do exist — the sitcom is off the fall schedule; CBS has ordered 13 episodes as a midseason replacement.

Two hours later, the upfront that began with a fake Beatles ended with a surprise performance by The Who. The actual Who — surviving members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend — playing their songs that have been adapted as "CSI" themes (for "CSI: NY," it's "Baba O'Reilly"), for what amounts to a sales conference of ad men, brand managers and TV affiliate executives. It was one of the sadder things I've ever seen, and yet it was somehow appropriate. They closed with "Won't Get Fooled Again" — the "CSI: Miami" theme — which, for its time (1971), was an unusually conservative anthem, in that its message was, like CBS's, that revolutionary change isn't necessarily good. ("Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss.")

Townshend and Daltrey barreled through the songs — Pete windmilling on the guitar, Roger unleashing his trademark screams — as if they were in front of any other audience, say, one composed of people with souls. That, I guess, is what great entertainers do, in popular music or popular TV: they forget, for a while, about the compromises and cynical dealing that keep their business afloat, and occasionally manage to create something wonderful and transcendent. Maybe one of the shows we see this week will do that, maybe not, but it was good to get a reminder that it could happen, before the TV people and the advertising people left to drink and schmooze at Tavern on the Green, beginning their negotiations over dollars per air second and demographic delivery, each side silently promising itself it would not get fooled again.

Tomorrow: UPN and Fox