March 14, 2013



Every year, the pundits shake their heads dourly about the future of the broadcast networks, and every year, Les Moonves stands up and proclaims CBS the best of all possible networks in this best of all possible worlds.  And to an extent, he’s right.  Thanks to the Super Bowl, CBS will win this season (Mitch Metcalf’s estimate is that it will have a 2.38 rating in 18-49s over the full season), and even without the big game, CBS would be neck-and-neck with FOX (around 2.13 vs. 2.17).  The Eye has, in both total viewers and 18-49s, the highest rated comedy (The Big Bang Theory) and drama (NCIS) on the air.  (The NCIS audience is overwhelmingly over 50, but the numbers are so huge that with Grey’s Anatomy and Once Upon A Time fading, even 25% of that total is enough to be #1).  Except when it’s facing football, CBS either wins or is strongly competitive on every night of the week.

Yet cracks are beginning to show.  In last year’s pre-season upfront advertising sales, CBS’s ad rates reportedly increased by 8-9%.  But with the Super Bowl (which is sold separately) excluded, the network’s 18-49 ratings this season are likely to be down about 15% from last year (in live + same day measurement, which is the mark most similar to the actual metric sold by the networks, that being commercials watched within 3 days of air).  Some of that disparity may be made up by later sales in the scatter market, but it’s still going to hit the bottom line.  This season, although Elementary is a mild success, none of the shows introduced by CBS is a breakout hit, and most of them flat-out flopped.  And the network’s hits are steadily aging and in increasing need of replacement.

Let’s take a look night by night:


8PM:  HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is about to enter its final season, and so far, CBS hasn’t even come close to finding a companion show for 8:30PM, let alone a replacement.  RULES OF ENGAGEMENT fills in a gap, but it’s no one’s idea of a solution.  Meanwhile, while 2 BROKE GIRLS is a solid success that any network would be thrilled to have, it isn’t remotely a Big Bang Theory-level hit, and it’s even below what 2 1/2 Men was doing last spring, long after the Ashton Kutcher excitement had faded.  The night isn’t broken by any means, but in 2 years things could be significantly worse.  One likely change is that unless it’s unairable, we can expect Chuck Lorre’s new sitcom, starring Anna Faris and Allison Janney, to premiere somewhere on Mondays in the fall (unless it joins Big Bang Theory and 2 1/2 Men moves back to Mondays), as the network prays for a new generation of Lorre hits.

10PM:  HAWAII 5-0 spent the fall being thrashed by Revolution, but it’s still performing fairly well for a 10PM show.


8PM:  The NCIS pair are obviously hugely successful cornerstones of CBS’s success, and there’s a new spin-off on its way.  Entering its second decade, though, NCIS is off its 2011-12 pace by 10-15%, and if that continues, in a couple of seasons it’ll be just another unremarkable procedural in the 18-49 demo.

10PM:  Neither VEGAS nor GOLDEN BOY has been the solution to this seemingly straightforward post-NCIS timeslot (although with Smash and Body of Proof as competition, CBS has recently been winning the hour).  Some other procedural will have to be tried out here.


8PM:  SURVIVOR, CRIMINAL MINDS and CSI are, respectively, 13, 8 and 13 years old.  All are still pulling decent numbers in the mid 2s (a bit lower than that for CSI), but naturally enough, all are trending downward.  Again, none of these is a problem right now, but they aren’t going to last forever, and a network that isn’t developing new hits is losing ground.


8PM:  THE BIG BANG THEORY is, of course, a blockbuster, and it’s paired well with 2 1/2 MEN.  The latter show, though, is aging and very expensive (and unlike CBS’s other long-running hits NCIS, CSi and Criminal Minds, it’s not owned by the network’s in-house studio).  8:30 is a timeslot that needs new blood.

9PM:  Thanks to the declines at ABC and NBC, PERSON OF INTEREST is looking awfully good these days, even though its own numbers are down from last year too.  It’s a sturdy anchor for the night’s dramas.

10PM:  Not even the post-Super Bowl slot did anything to make ELEMENTARY more than a moderate success, running significantly below where The Mentalist was in this hour last year and now also behind Scandal.  It will be renewed, but could face a move to another night, and seems to have an indifferent long-range future.


8PM:  UNDERCOVER BOSS has been doing OK here, and it may continue rotating with other low-cost programming.

9PM:  It feels like time is up for CSI NY, and although VEGAS might do better, it’s a very expensive show to put on such a low-viewership night, and will need some impressive ratings to justify its renewal.  The CBS strategy of running new scripted dramas on Fridays is going to be a difficult one to sustain.

10PM:  Clearly CBS is OK with the mid-1 ratings it gets from BLUE BLOODS, presumably due to international and other ancillary revenue.  It’s down about 10-15% from last year, and the question is how low can the network let those numbers continue to go.


8PM:  THE AMAZING RACE will continue its travels.

9PM:  CBS just announced a $2M per episode post-network deal for THE GOOD WIFE (a complicated one including multiple cable and streaming windows), and with its barely decent ratings, that may mean it’s outlived its usefulness.  On the other hand, it’s the only show on the network to get any critical or awards-season love, and it seems safe to assume that the show overperforms with the kind of high-income, well-educated households advertisers covet.  So it’s not necessarily done.

10PM:  THE MENTALIST hasn’t been doing much on its new night, even with the weakest of competition from ABC.  The show has a loyal core audience that wants to know the resolution of its continuing story arc, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if next season were announced as its last, perhaps with a short order.

So it’s great to be CBS… but maybe not indefinitely.




About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."