Tuned In

CBS Bores Us, All the Way To the Bank

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CBS is the Tevye of TV networks: Tradition! Tradition! It’s CBS that gives you 60 Minutes, old-school crime procedurals, old-fashioned sitcoms, shot with three cameras in front of a studio audience, that actually stay on the air from season to season. For every Survivor, there’s an NCIS–uncool, meat-and-potatoes programs that heartland America can recognize, from decades of familiarity, as TV. Even its "youth" comedy block includes a show called "Old Christine."

The strategy may be boring for critics, but it’s been successful for CBS, which is why the network announced only four new shows at Carnegie Hall. Most of its new 2005-06 shows–Close to Home, How I Met Your Mother, Christine, Criminal Minds, Ghost Whisperer and The Unit–are coming back.In fact, the biggest programming news was probably the move, from Thursday to Sunday night, of Without a Trace, which is distinguished from CBS’s million other crime procedurals in that it’s the one where someone doesn’t always die.

This left CBS with a lot of time to fill–with tributes to returning shows, with a performance by the cast of Broadway nostalgia act Jersey Boys, with Mandy Patinkin doing a taped skit of songs inspired by Criminal Minds ("Stranglers in the Night," "50 Ways to Cleave Your Lover" ). CBS even out-loony-divaed ABC, seeing their Mary J. Blige and raising them Mariah Carey, who came out in a baby-doll dress to sing "We Belong Together" to promote her upcoming concert special.

Yes, multiplatinum recording stars do this for TV upfronts. They’re like My Super Sweet Sixteen for advertising executives.

Even at CBS, though, there is tension between tradition and change. They brought out evening news anchor Bob Schieffer, who has been the epitome of old-school TV paying off for CBS: an old white guy in a supposedly fast-changing medium who has headed the only network newscast to gain viewers in the last year.

But CBS is monkeying with Schieffer’s success by hiring Katie Couric to anchor the news starting in September. Couric still works for NBC, so as of this morning, Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., told reporters at a press breakfast that CBS was still "working on" getting her to appear at the upfront. Apparently, the tunnel from Rockefeller Center to 57th Street got dug just in time, so they shuffled Schieffer off for Couric toot-sweet. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" she asked the crowd in a short address: "Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate."

CBS’s single new sitcom, The Class, is a stark retro contrast to the laugh-track-free, single-camera sitcoms announced by ABC and NBC. From a producer of Friends, it’s about a group of twentysomethings from the same third-grade class who have a reunion. There is a studio audience. A laugh track tells you when to laugh. People sit on couches and talk on phones.

Two of the new dramas are in the crime genre, albeit in slightly different ways. In Smith, Ray Liotta–major movie star!–plays an elite thief whose burgling career is a secret from his family. In Shark, James Woods–major, major movie star!–plays a cocky defense attorney who decides to become a prosecutor after he gets "tired of working on the wrong side." (Boo, adversarial justice system! Hiss, due process!)

The most interesting, and thus unlikely, new CBS show is Jericho. Skeet Ulrich–major… oh, never mind–returns to his small Kansas hometown, which is soon cut off from the rest of the world after an unexplained nuclear apocalypse. (Strangely, in the age of terrorism and pandemic fears, a nuclear-apocalypse scenario is almost comforting, in an I-love-the-’80s, rational-enemies-you-can-find-on-a-map way.) CBS said it’s very high on the show, which they called their "most ambitious in years." Then again, it’s worth noting that at the press breakfast, Moonves couldn’t recall where it took place. "Utah? Kansas? One of those states."

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you CBS: the voice of heartland America.