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CBS's Upfront: C, B and the S-Word

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A scene from Hawaii Five-0. / CBS

CBS began its upfront presentation making the vigorous case to advertisers that there is nothing wrong with broadcast TV, with the broadcast TV model, or with the advertisers that support it. CBS chief exec Les Moonves told the assembled admen and -women that he felt “bullish” on the economy. CBS’s sales chief Jo Ann Ross said that, no matter what the overall numbers, broadcast is still the biggest game in town: “We’re in the big-event business.” And Moonves played a tape of CBS’ research guru saying that claims that TV advertising was down were “bull–” well, bull-something-else.

CBS is big on the S-word this year: it played a trailer from a new William Shatner comedy, adapted from the Twitter Feed “Shit My Dad Says,” with the slightly more network-friendly title, $#*! My Dad Says. Raising the question: what is the difference between broadcast TV and the cable channels that have fragmented its audience? Is it just about language standards and a few bleeps here and there?

Judging by the clip, there’s more to it than that. If you disregard the attention-getting title, the Shatner comedy looked like any old-school network comedy about a crotchety, wise-cracking old man. (A genre in which no one is likely ever to improve on Kurtwood Smith’s Red Forman in That ’70s Show.) There’s a difference between this school of comedy and what you see on, say, FX or HBO—but it has to do with much more than its having to use cartoon symbols in its title. Take away the $#*!, and, judging from the trailer anyway, you’ve got a standard, zinger-heavy CBS sitcom.

Similar story with the other comedy CBS previewed, Chuck Lorre’s Mike and Molly, about a cop and a teacher who meet in a weight-loss group. Its plus-sized premise has got it attention, but take away the size of the stars (and let’s be honest, really the female star, since Kevin James and Jim Belushi have taught us that network execs are willing to make large men the stars of comedies), and it looks like you’ve got an unremarkable relationship comedy.

Speaking of Jim Belushi, he costars with Jerry O’Connell in CBS’s new legal buddy-dramedy, The Defenders, about a pair of “colorful” defense attorneys in Las Vegas; its success will depend on whether it can keep “colorful” from being a synonym for “irritating.” And the network’s other two dramas are also in  CBS’s law-and-order comfort zone. The remake of Hawaii Five-0 looks like it could be good, lightweight fun, but it was really hard to get much from the trailer beyond “loud” and “bikinis.” (Though for fans of BSG’s Grace Park, above, the latter may be sufficient.)

Finally, “Blue Bloods,” about a family of cops and co-starring Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg (from two former Sopranos producers), seems to have potential in its focus on issues of family loyalty and civil rights vs. public safety. I’m interested to see more, but I’m also concerned that this may be the kind of drama that works better on cable—not because of the limits on sex and violence, but because cable shows are allowed more leeway for ambiguity and for taking characters into gray zones rather than forcing “likeability” on them. That again, is something you can’t simply judge from a trailer. But it’s a reminder that there are still differences between broadcast and cable TV, and they add up to more than $#*!.