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CBS Upfront: Selling Boring in Too-Interesting Times

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CBS also picked up ghost-spotting drama Medium from NBC. Robert Voets/CBS

CBS also picked up ghost-spotting drama Medium from NBC. Robert Voets/CBS

We’re boring. That was the front-and-center message of CBS’ upfront pitch to advertisers, not just covertly but overtly: CBS Corporation chief Les Moonves actually used the term. “We’re not sexy,” he added to the advertisers assembled at Carnegie Hall Wednesday afternoon. But you could argue that’s a strong sales pitch in these economic times. Just as investors have retreated to the stability of low-yielding, unsexy investments, maybe CBS can turn the familiarity of its meat-and-potatoes cop shows and sitcoms into a source of comfort for nervous advertisers. 

Like Fox did a couple days earlier, CBS also made the argument for the value of TV itself, in a year when ratings are down and pundits are declaring network television a dinosaur. In fact, Moonves even cited other networks’ broadcasts as an example of TV’s reach: the Super Bowl on NBC this season, and the finale of American Idol on Fox. TV still delivers the biggest audiences of consumers, he said: “There’s a reason we call it broadcasting,” he argued, adding, “and CBS casts more broadly than anyone else.”

But CBS wasn’t above also taking shots at the competition—especially NBC, for putting Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. and admitting frankly that the move was about reducing costs, not getting ratings. “One network says they’re no longer concerned with the ratings,” sniped president of network sales Jo Ann Ross. “They’re no longer programming for the viewer.” By extension, she was arguing, they’re no longer programming for you, the advertiser.

So what’s CBS programming for the viewer? Well, put it this way: “boring” was not just an exaggeration for dramatic effect.

Most of CBS’s new offerings, on the surface anyway, are as generic as the labels in a Dharma Initiative food pantry. There’s a lawyer drama, a hospital drama, a police drama and an NCIS spinoff. It all depends on the execution of course, but most of the clip reels were not more compelling than the descriptions, so here’s a quick rundown: 

ACCIDENTALLY ON PURPOSE: The lone new sitcom (based on a memoir by time.com movie critic Mary Pols) has Jenna Elfman as a woman who gets pregnant by a younger man. With ABC’s Cougar Town and Eastwick, continues a trend of wish-fulfillment for women over 35. (Well, maybe the unplanned-pregnancy part isn’t wish-fulfillment. 

THE GOOD WIFE: Julianna Margulies plays the wife of a politician (Chris Noth) caught in a Spitzer-like sex scandal who kicks him to the curb and restarts her career as a lawyer. See wish-fulfillment, above. 

THREE RIVERS: A “high-stakes medical drama.” Just once, I would like to watch a low-stakes medical drama. Maybe set at a veteriniarian’s office? 

NCIS: LOS ANGELES: The backdoor pilot for this spinoff already aired; but more important, someone at CBS talked costar LL Cool J into performing “Mama Said Knock You Out” live at the Carnegie presentation, so it was all worth it. 

UNDERCOVER BOSS: The one reality show CBS previewed yesterday (Arranged Marriage also debuts midseason but had no footage to show), and the one CBS show I am actually eager to see next year. The perfect-for-a-recession premise: in each episode, a corporate boss goes undercover as a low-level worker in his or her company (under the ruse of being followed by a “documentary crew” or some such excuse) and learns what it’s like for the grunts. In the pilot, a bigwig at Waste Management gets to clean port-a-johns and pick up waste paper (for which a manager “fires” him because he’s so bad at it). In the end, he learns valuable lessons and rewards the underlings who proved their kindness and mettle while he was incognito.

Is it manipulated? Contrived to glorify management? Making entertainment of worker surveillance? Maybe. But it also looked funny and tearjerking, and I’ll bet plenty of account executives in the audience were trying to think of how to persuade their clients to sign up for an episode. If nothing else, Undercover Boss did not look boring. What’s it doing on CBS?