Sure enough, the week after I posted that blog, NBC fell to fifth in the ratings. 5th, behind Univision. A Spanish-language channel, with no subtitle option (Which has always annoyed me, and I've never understood why that hasn't been instituted on any major foreign-language channel in the U.S.), beat NBC, so now, they're working on firing Leno again, and hiring Howard Stern to replace Fallon, according to the newest rumors. (Sigh. Shaking head with what-the-hell-are-they-thinking face) So while I'm here complaining about how my favorite channel has been screwing up, I thought I should take a look at what a successful network channel is doing, and take a closer look at CBS. At least according to the Neilsens ratings, CBS is really the biggest network. They're a well-run network, with a very consistent strategy for each night of programming, geared towards a specific mass-appeal audience. So why don't I watch it more? Well, most of their shows suck.
Seriously, how is "NCIS" number one? Does anybody know anyone who watches it? In my "GREATEST TV SHOW OF ALL-TIME!" poll, it's gotten a couple votes, and each one has surprised the hell out of me. I mean, by any thoughtful critical analysis of a TV series, if I was listing the best TV dramas, on TV now, "NCIS," or any show with those four letters in the title, wouldn't be in the Top 20. It's generously the third or fourth best drama on CBS, after "Elementary", "Vegas" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigators" right now, and that's only because everything else is about the same level of bad, and I'm giving "CSI..." points for being good when it first started. (It hasn't been watchable in a decade). I mean, it's definitely cable's domain that genre but still, even the best network dramas right now, like "The Good Wife", and "Law & Order SVU", would find a spot. They would be behind "Downton Abbey", but they'd be on there. It's hard to remember for some people, when "CSI..." first came on the air, 'cause you have to put it in context a bit, 'cause at the time, that show was different than anything else on TV. The extreme close-up, the slick style, the more scientific approach to crime solving, and good-looking slick characters, was really unique at the time, as a new age "Law & Order". Of course, every show has now copied everything they did, and the show jumped the shark a bunch of times, but you can still see it's impact on CBS today. With the exception of "The Good Wife", all their dramas, including and especially "NCIS", are basically spun-off from this original surprise hit of "CSI...", in some cases they are literal spin-offs, including "CSI: New York", and the now-cancelled "CSI: Miami", which was the biggest TV show in the world by the time it went off the air. (Internationally, that show was huge!) Go through the list, "Person of Interest", stopping/investigating a crime before it happens. "Criminal Minds", investigating really sick and twisted serial killers. "The Mentalist", detective, who's kinda psychic-ish, observant, solving crimes. "Elementary", Sherlock Holmes. Even "Vegas," a cop and a mobster, fighting each other, while the cop is out investigating the latest crimes. "NCIS" is, "CSI", in the Navy. And, "CSI..." in the Navy, in L.A. There's a theme and a motif here.running across their drama series schedule, and even when there's some apparent deviation, it sticks to it really well. Even "The Good Wife", at it's core, (and it's best) is a lawyer show, investigation, to win a case. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this, in fact, it's a good strategy, and it works. There's little that's special or unique, and everything looks the same, but kinda how networks have always been run. There's that famous joke in "Network" where Faye Dunaway keeps getting pitched pilots for crusty-but-benign detectives, which there was about fifty of them on television in the seventies and eighties, so there is this sense of copycatting, but it is apart of a game plan, and a successful one at that.
They've done the same thing over the years, with their sitcoms too. When every other channel, starting switching to single-camera sitcoms, CBS, took an intriguing approach and insisted on sticking with the traditional 3-camera sitcoms. Now, there's not as many as there should be, on television overall, and on CBS, because of the increase in reality programming, which I'll get to in a bit, but they stuck with the traditional sitcom structure and it's paid off for them, in both audience, and even occasionally acclaim.The only pseduo-exception to the three-camera show they have is "How I Met Your Mother", which is a 3-camera show, but is shot like a single-camera (as in, no studio audience, and they go outside the typical stage sets often. "The Big Bang Theory", is the biggest sitcom on TV right now, and before that, "Two and a Half Men" was the biggest sitcom on TV, and before that, "Everybody Loves Raymond" was the biggest, and they've had hits since with "The King of Queens", "Mike & Molly" and their latest hit, "2 Broke Girls". Also, for reasons that I will never understand, they've insisted on keeping "Rules of Engagement" on the air, apparently until its in syndication, and past that apparently. (Seriously, please someone explain that one to me. I've been trying to figure it out, and the only scenario that makes sense to me is that David Spade must have something on Les Moonves. It has to be, what else can explain it?!) Considering their success, I guess it's odd that other channels has taken the opposite approach to sitcoms, and gone almost exclusively to single-camera shows. (Although NBC, God help them, they're trying. Why they're it with "Whitney", I don't know, but they're trying.) One one hand, CBS has been relatively successful ratings-wise doing this, and I think it's because their style is more reminiscent and familiar to those older demographics who don't find much humor in the great single-camera shows like "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation" that are on now, and they tend towards, even the lesser three-camera shows on CBS, than the great single-camera, with the humor that completely alludes them. This can also be seen in their drama choices. They're classic drama formulas. The detective shows, the lawyer shows, the family melodrama cop shows, they're far more mass-appealing than say "Lost", for instance, or a modern example, maybe "Once Upon a Time", and they're more digestible than cable dramas tend to be.
CBS can also be blamed for the reality trend, starting with what should've been the one-time experiment that is "Survivor". It's still a very big ratings hit, consistently ranked at or near the Top 20 Neilsen ratings. They've correctly switched the main focus from that show, to Mark Burnett's other major show "The Amazing Race", which has won nearly every Reality show award out there, including all but one Emmy, ever given out for Best Reality-Competition Show. Now, they tried a few experiments with reality along the way. Short-lived dance shows, with Paula Abdul judging, and a failed "Star Search" reboot. They just cancelled "The Job" after two episodes. They've kept "Big Brother" on the air, which was a gigantic flop after it's first season, when it debuted right as "Survivor" was ending it's first season. They seems to be experimental in nature in regards to reality, and when they get a hit, they stick to it. They are limited though, and they don't throw reality shows on and off the air randomly. (In contrast, NBC's "The Apprentice" has been given multiple rebirths after cancellation, also true with "Last Comic Standing") They're also quick to cut the cord when a reality show is flailing. Reality is a cheap way to get product on the air, that part is undeniable. Few if any writers, no actors, often cheap sets, it can be ideal. This is why badly-rated shows like "America's Next Top Model", have managed to remain on the air, despite poor ratings and acclaim, but CBS has been selective. "Undercover Boss", is their recent example, it won the Best Reality Program Emmy last year, and its formulaic and contriving, but it's moderately entertaining, and has a decent Shakespearean concept. It got good ratings in a limited run of the show, and now it's a regularly-running series, with a full schedule.
Other than that, not counting Late Night, the only other shows on CBS are the news magazines "48 Hours" and "60 Minutes", the latter, still a Top Ten show, after all these years, and "48 Hours", is responsible for true story murder-mysteries with creepy-sounding narrator-reporter-of-the-week shows. (Yeah, looking at you "Dateline".)
Alright, so with all this, CBS has created the most-watched network, according to the Neilsen ratings. Now, how important are the Neilsen ratings? Not much anymore, really. How good a network is CBS? Programming-wise, it's not that great. There's just as much crap on it as the other network channel. Maybe it's got one or two more good shows, but it's hardly in rarefied air. So, other than demographics, why the ratings? One thing that CBS is lacking in, are internet downloads. And specifically, I'm talking about Hulu, 'cause they were the one network that chose not to buy into that company, which is owned by NBC, FOX and ABC jointly. Now, you can go to cbs.com and watch the latest episode of many/most of their shows. When "The Voice" was on, I watched "How I Met Your Mother" there, but Hulu is clearly the big winner in this game. And the shows that are popular on hulu, "Family Guy" being the big one, but "Parks and Recreation", "Community" "The Office", etc., they aren't ratings hits necessarily. I hypothesize that a small chunk of their ratings is because of this, but I think it would be enough to dethrone them, but it does signify that the other networks are moving away from the Neilsens as their success standard. So on top of a well-designed, network, they also have less competition than before. I don't consider CBS to be a better network or the best network, as apparently the American public does. There's just as many bad shows, they keep some shows on, way past their peak, and frankly, the top of their quality is about equal to most of the other networks top quality shows. I understand why their number one, and for that I commend them. Wish they had more good shows.