It's upfront time...that annual event where the major broadcast and cable networks go all out to convince advertisers their slates will provide the best returns on investment. While the event is catered to the business world, analysts and viewers can learn a lot about where television is headed.
CBS (NYSE:CBS) is the No. 1 broadcast network and it will likely stay on top. Last year's fall slate was a little rockier than usual, but when you have a high level of programming, you can afford to take chances. To ensure stability this year executives might be more comfortable going the spin-off route, which will force some tough decisions this May.
Last season CBS launched four new fall comedies with names like Chuck Lorre, Robin Williams, and Greg Garcia attached. Of the group, two have been renewed, one canceled and one's fate is still uncertain.
The most successful was Garcia's The Millers, which proved to be tops among all the major broadcasters. It was refreshing to see Millers work even though it flew in the face of TV critics, who blasted it for its low-brow humor. Yes, the show can rely too heavily on it, but it's still funny, and CBS helped put together a great comedic ensemble.
Then there's Chuck Lorre's Mom. It didn't reach Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men levels, but it has heart and it's a reliable commodity for the network. As a result Lorre will go into his second year of having four shows on the network...a truly impressive feat.
What didn't work?
Yet CBS also had its share of issues with its other two comedies -- the over-hyped We Are Men and the surprisingly under-received The Crazy Ones. We Are Men was given an early series order last year, which usually is reserved for shows with high expectations, but ultimately audiences didn't find it funny.
The real stunner was Crazy Ones. Robin Williams is a gifted comedian, but viewers weren't bowled over by the series. It didn't help it was the lone single-camera comedy on a night dominated by multi-camera hits.
While the jury is still out on whether Crazy will get a sophomore run, the executioner's already been called for Hostages. CBS' mistake with Hostages wasn't taking a risk on a limited-run series -- the network should be applauded for it. The mistake was not committing to it being a limited-run series. Executives and producers tried play coy on future seasons/versions and audiences weren't up for the game. Viewers wanted to know that there would be a resolution at the end of the 15 episodes, but no one would commit to that until it was too late.
The problem with Hostages was also that it gave ABC and NBC a big opportunity. Hostages' identity crisis gave Castle and The Blacklist a chance to swipe CBS' share of the 10 p.m. Monday pie. In previous years ABC and CBS split the timeslot with one winning in viewers and the other in the 18-49 demo, but with Hawaii Five-0 shipped off to Fridays and Hostages airing in its place, The Blacklist pounced.
Yet even after Hostages ended and Intelligence got the slot, the damage was done. Despite the Josh Holloway series being right in CBS' wheelhouse, audiences had already committed to other series and the drama faltered. Intelligence remains one of just a handful of shows not included in CBS' renewal announcement. It joins Crazy Ones and The Mentalist as network bubble shows and likely has the worst odds, despite its boffo (initial) premiere leading out of powerhouse NCIS. Although it didn't translate when the show shifted nights, its initial success may signal to the network it may be time to split the NCIS power team and use them as lead-ins for new dramas.
With Mentalist things are a little hazier. The show has treated this season as its farewell and rebirth all at the same time. Producers wrapped their long-running "Red John" storyline and then rebooted the series (in a positive way). But the drama is now over the 100-episode mark, already sold into syndication, and at the point in its lifespan where it's no longer as profitable for the network as it is for the studio producing it (in this case, Warner Brothers). Expect the WB to fight hard for this show, which still plays well internationally and benefits from its very charismatic lead Simon Baker.
Among the Eye's other series, the vast majority were given the greenlight for a return next season, including all of its reality franchises (Survivor, The Amazing Race), top-tier comedies (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men), and ratings-grabbing dramas (NCIS, Elementary, Blue Bloods). The Good Wife also snagged a renewal, which comes at a time when the show is in the middle of an amazing resurgence, proving quality matters.
CBS head Les Moonves made waves when he announced his network would likely only pick up two new comedies and two new dramas because of its strength of schedule (and that's not even mentioning the addition of Thursday night football). Likely that estimate will rise to three each when factoring in midseason, but the competition is still fierce, especially with Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan's new project Battle Creek already being given an early series order.
NCIS spinoff NCIS: New Orleans and CSI spinoff CSI: Cyber are both looking strong as well, and that's damaging to other pilot hopefuls. These two are huge brands that make the network a ton of money and each have successfully launched spin-offs before -- a combined three. With names like Scott Bakula and Patricia Arquette attached, that could be too tempting to pass up. You also can't underestimate the Tea Leoni-fronted Madame Secretary, which looks like a great companion show for The Good Wife (but as CBS knows launching new shows on Sundays is always risky and not usually worth it).
On the comedy side How I Met Your Mother spin-off How I Met Your Dad is looking strong, especially thanks to the late-game signing of Meg Ryan as the show's narrator (filling the Bob Saget role from the original). In addition comedies from veteran standups Tom Papa and Jim Gaffigan are getting good buzz and Matthew Perry's Odd Couple remake remains high on executives' radars.
The bottom line with CBS: don't let one season's results influence your opinion on next season's slate. This network doesn't reboot...it reloads.
Brett Gold owns shares of CBS. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.