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Upfronts Watch: At CBS, These Are the Good Old Days

While broadcast TV as a whole is struggling, somehow CBS managed to make it 1997 again, by science or magic.

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Monty Brinton / CBS

Anna Faris (right) and Allison Janney as recovering-alcoholic daughter and mother in CBS's Mom.

In one of the later episodes of 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy unveiled a strategy to reverse NBC‘s ratings troubles: “Make it 1997 again, by science or magic.” In a way, CBS has managed to do that. Other than the addition of some reality shows, it pretty much programs its network and runs its business as if it were still the 1990s: a time when Americans watch sitcoms in big numbers, turn out for crime dramas in droves, and stay loyal to their favorite programs for years and years.

And it works–it works pretty much only for CBS anymore, and it doesn’t work perfectly even for them, but it works. While the other major broadcasters are struggling with technological and cultural change, trying to compete with cable at its game, and adjusting to an era of diminished expectations, CBS draws large audiences (not as big as they once were, but still) to watch old-fashioned shows on old-fashioned TV.

So in the world of CBS, it’s still the ’90s, in the best business sense. This season, CBS is winning the 18 to 49 advertising demographic for the first time in 22 years. You might argue that is partly a function of other networks dropping (see: American Idol) as much as it is CBS rising—but so what? In TV today, not falling is the new rising, and first place is first place. And the other networks know it, as Jimmy Kimmel put it during a standup routine at ABC’s upfront Tuesday: “CBS. Those smug m—–f——s.”

CBS isn’t entirely immune to change, but it’s incremental: next fall, it will add one new drama and four sitcoms, as it expands its comedy night on Thursday. (A sign it knows its hit sitcoms aren’t getting any younger.) A couple of its new comedies will be single-camera (i.e., shot in the movie-like style of The Office) rather than in the multi-camera, studio-audience style of most of CBS’s current sitcoms.

Still, three of the new fall comedies (We Are Men, Mom, and The Millers) are typically broad. (If you were hoping leaving The Americans meant Margo Martindale was now free to do more fart jokes in The Millers, you’re in luck!) A fourth, The Crazy Ones, is the experiment: Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar as a father-daughter advertising team in a single-camera show with a semi-improv feel. (Oddly, the trailer had the atmosphere of the kind of white-collar niche sitcoms that NBC has been stepping back from to make shows that are more like… CBS’s.)

Its new fall drama, Hostages, is a more-serial show than CBS usually makes: a rogue agent (Dylan McDermott) kidnaps a family to force a surgeon (Toni Collette) to kill the President during an operation. Under the Dome, a Stephen King miniseries beginning in June, is also an experiment for the network, though a trailer aired at the upfront had the kind of clean-apocalypse aesthetic that CBS’s Jericho once did.

CBS is tweaking. It’s trying to freshen itself up, and to take advantage of the many weaknesses that have appeared in its opponents’ schedules. But CBS does not believe that it needs to fix anything that’s truly broken. “Broadcast is not an old medium being left behind by new ones,” company president Les Moonves told the assembled advertisers. “Far from it. We are the center of it all.”

For the broadcast business, not necessarily true. For CBS, true enough, for the current ad-sales season anyway. Things are still pretty nice in 1997. Les Moonves, I have Jack Donaghy on the line for you.