The anatomy of a hit-making fall TV season

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Year after year, CBS does it best and its new fall lineup is no exception

To accentuate the potential positive in this new television season, this week I’ll focus on CBS, which once again has put together the strongest primetime fall lineup. While no schedule is perfect (I have to take the network to task for not attempting to more aggressively program deadly Saturday), the Eye net is the poster child for programming done right. And this year’s fall season is no exception.

The network has enjoyed a viewership winning streak for the last eight straight years (and for 13 out of the last 14), and what’s been particularly impressive about its performance is that CBS has been dominating the coveted 18-49 adult viewership for two of the last four years. Once known primarily as an attraction for blue-haired geriatrics, CBS is now home to a strong potpourri of product that targets all age groups.

So, how did CBS accomplish this feat? 

Got younger without ignoring fans. Always the platform for a glut of crime-solving dramas, multi-camera sitcoms and the veteran "60 Minutes," the network’s most obvious obstacle in the past was that its audience skewed older. Pre-"Survivor" dramas, like "Touched by an Angel" and "Judging Amy," were reliable, but magnets for the 50+ crowd. One solution might have been for CBS to wipe the slate clean. After all, NBC in recent years rid its schedule of crime-themed dramas "Harry’s Law" and "The Mysteries of Laura," simply because of their reliance on older audiences, as did ABC with "Body of Proof" in 2013. NBC even cut "JAG" loose after just one season, while CBS was intuitive enough to recognize its long-term potential, eventually spinning it off into "NCIS."

Most importantly, CBS has recognized the importance of not alienating its core viewership. This season, for example, the pairing of "Hawaii Five" and "Blue Bloods" on Friday provides a haven for older viewers at home at the start of the new weekend. And reality/competition shows like "Survivor," "The Amazing Race," which returns mid-season, and "Big Brother" continue to bring in younger viewers. Factor in Chuck Lorre comedies, "The Big Bang Theory" in particular and promising new fare like sitcoms "Kevin Can Wait" and "The Great Indoors" and drama "Bull," and there are programming options for all ages.

Viewers over age 50 still matter, and CBS knows it. And, yes…the clock will keep ticking on "60 Minutes" forever.

Never overused a hit. Unlike ABC, which might still have had game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in primetime had it not ran it as much as four times per week, "Survivor" continues to work for CBS because we get a two month break in between the fall and spring editions. Fans of "Survivor" who crave more of this type of reality backstabbing always have "Big Brother" to look forward to in the summer.

CBS may have compromised the value of "Big Brother" by potentially cannibalizing its audience by now offering a fall edition of the summer stalwart on digital extension CBS All Access, but I predict only diehard fans will tune into "Big Brother Over the Top." It unsuccessfully tried to spin off a winter edition in 2008. Still, CBS is wise to understand the growing relevance of the digital world.

Stayed true to its comedic brand. Unlike NBC, which has little-to-no comedy identity at present, CBS knows what’s been successful. It once populated the airwaves with as many as four Chuck Lorre-produced sitcoms at one time: "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory," "Mike & Molly" and "Mom." These half hours embody a certain comedic style the Eye net audience has grown accustomed to. While the critics may not agree, bringing back a name like Kevin James in "Kevin Can Wait" is like welcoming back an old sitcom friend. 

Took calculated risks. In search of its own comic book hero, CBS took a gamble last fall with its introduction of "Supergirl" on Monday night, traditionally home to comedy. After ratings disappointed, CBS opted against a second season and shipped it off to corporate cousin The CW, which is a more appropriate fit. And this fall, the two-hour Monday sitcom block is back, anchored by the former "The King of Queens" star in "Kevin Can Wait."

Understood lead-ins always matter. You can certainly watch any shows anytime you want via digital or the DVR. But scheduling still matters for a broadcast network, and CBS made the best move of any network this fall by positioning new drama "Bull," starring former "NCIS" star Michael Weatherly, in the Tuesday 9 p.m. hour. It is smartly scheduled to air in between "NCIS" and the relocated "NCIS: New Orleans." With more past and present hits than any other network, CBS continues to benefit by offering lead-in support to most of its new series.

Kept audiences hooked. By leading into the aforementioned Friday night crime dramas with the revival of "MacGyver" at 8 p.m. this season, CBS has positioned a night to quench even the most voracious appetite for the traditional crime-solving fan. Shifting "NCIS: Los Angeles" to Sunday at 8 p.m., meanwhile, could just be just the ingredient to ignite the performances of 9-11 p.m. lead-out dramas "Madam Secretary" and "Elementary" and compete well against "Sunday Night Football" on NBC. And there is early season support for the Monday-night kickoff of "The Big Bang Theory" into "Kevin Can Wait" and the hit show's move to its regular Thursday night timeslot into newbie "The Great Indoors." The scheduling shows CBS can finesse schedules to give new shows strong starts while still supporting its steady hits with suitable time periods, a talent every network should exhibit.

Respected its audience. Although CBS, like any network, can be accused of milking too many spin-offs out of a hit series, when it was time for "CSI" to finally end last fall, the network gave the audience a final two-hour movie wrapping up the loose ends. Not every network is as respectful to its audience.

While not a perfect schedule this season, CBS is virtually guaranteed another season of total viewer leadership. And it is now can also claim to be a chief competitor for the much-sought-after adult 18-49 demographic.


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