CBS Finds Formula For Producing Hits That Confound Critics

Another day, another new CBS show that will probably do great and get a full-season order. Yawn.

This one is a family comedy called “The McCarthys” (not to be confused with Melissa McCarthy, who stars on another CBS show, “Mike & Molly”).

“The McCarthys” premieres Thursday night (Oct. 30) at 9:30 Eastern time -- a relative latecomer to the fall schedule because up through last Thursday, CBS was enjoying the fruits of an eight-week schedule of “Thursday Night Football” telecasts.

In the absence of football, CBS will reconstitute its Thursday lineup starting this week, with “The Big Bang Theory” at 8, the season premiere of “Mom” at 8:30, “Two and a Half Men” at 9 (yes, it’s still on, but this is its final season), “The McCarthys” and then the season premiere of “Elementary” at 10.



“The McCarthys” will likely make itself right at home –- not because “The McCarthys” is anything special but because it isn’t, which is precisely what the CBS formula for churning out hit shows is all about.

“The McCarthys” is about a close-knit but rambunctious Boston family consisting of middle-aged parents, a grown daughter and three grown sons, all of whom live within a few blocks of each other. And -- get this -- one of the sons, this show’s lead character, is gay. Yawn -- again.

Remember when a scenario like this was actually controversial?  Once upon a time on TV, this Boston family might not have been so receptive to the idea of a gay son or brother. But this is 2014, and the gay son’s lifestyle is no big deal to these traditional, working-class Bostonians. As played by Tyler Ritter (one of the sons of John Ritter), the gay McCarthy is just about the nicest, most thoughtful person you’d ever want to meet. 

Viewers will likely find him easy to take -- but what do I know? Lately, I have found it nearly impossible to predict the success or failure of TV shows, particularly those on CBS.

It’s as if CBS has figured out a way to make TV shows that are virtually critic-proof. Or to put it another way, despite the best fault-finding efforts of TV critics, the shows on CBS have this uncanny way of finding audiences anyway.

The other day, CBS announced full-season orders for four new dramas -- “Madam Secretary,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Scorpion” and “Stalker.”

“Madam Secretary” and “NCIS: New Orleans” I could understand: People seem to love “NCIS,” so a New Orleans spinoff with a bankable, familiar lead actor -- Scott Bakula -- is as close to a no-brainer as TV gets. “Madam Secretary” also seemed to have “hit” written all over it, sandwiched between “60 Minutes” and “The Good Wife” on Sunday nights.

But “Stalker” and “Scorpion”? To me, the “Stalker” pilot was unrelievedly grim, and I had no interest in watching any subsequent episodes. And “Scorpion,” about a team of youthful tech geniuses hired by the government to fight terrorists and other arch-criminals, seemed so unrealistic that I was confident viewers would reject it. I was wrong, of course.

CBS made its full-season order decisions based on numbers like these: Last week, total viewership for “NCIS: New Orleans” was 16.13 million; “Madam Secretary,” 11.713 million; “Scorpion,” 10.747 million; and “Stalker,” up against Game 2 of the World Series on Fox, 7.367 million (the season-to-date average for “Stalker” is 9.49 million).

Shows like these are indicative of a gap that exists in TV between the kinds of shows that “everybody” talks about and the shows that “nobody” talks about but are nevertheless among the most popular shows on TV.

And when you say “everybody” in this context, everybody knows you’re not talking literally about “everybody,” but about a relatively smallish group of people who include TV critics, bloggers, Twitterers and any other group that is disproportionately vocal on social media on the subject of “cool” TV shows. Earlier this year, for example, “Orange Is the New Black” was being talked about so much that you may have thought its popularity was on par with the Super Bowl. It is not.

Meanwhile, none of the “cool” kids seem to be very vocal about shows like “NCIS: New Orleans.” And yet, millions of “nobodies” seem to like it just fine.

3 comments about "CBS Finds Formula For Producing Hits That Confound Critics".
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  1. charles bachrach from BCCLTD, October 29, 2014 at 6:21 p.m.

    CBS have more good luck than good management...beginning at the
    top! They do indeed have a few good shows (Good Wife and Madam Secretary, etc.) But these and the other hits (remember when a show had to have over a 30 share to be considered a success) will be gone sooner than later. The best thing any network has in terms of programming is the NFL! Except, of course, for the
    announcers who "talk just to hear themselves talk"

  2. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, October 29, 2014 at 6:39 p.m.

    "...the CBS formula for churning out hit shows..."

    I can't believe how dismissive you are of the talent (both above the line and below the line) of the shows that CBS airs.

    There's no assembly line that produces the CBS shows, each one is painstakingly hand assembled, as people who work in TV can attest.

    NCIS may not be hip and water-cooler-friendly, but it's always been well-crafted and well-produced, and extraordinarily satisfying to its loyal audience. And there's nothing wrong with that. And if "Madame Secretary" isn't "The West Wing," it's far more accessible to non-political-junkies.

    You note that CBS has seemed to find the sweet spot between hip shows no one watches, and hit reality shows that you're afraid to admit you do, but then you're just as dismissive as the "cool kids" (whose influence, as in high school, is way overblown).

    Give CBS (and its numerous creative contributors) the credit they deserve. Running a network isn't about good luck. It's about good execution, and these days, CBS is getting the job done.

  3. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, October 29, 2014 at 6:40 p.m.

    I wish your comments allowed for paragraph breaks. Be a lot easier to read long posts.

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