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CBS: Playing to Its Strengths with New Procedurals and Comedies


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This post originally appeared at JackMyers.com.

CBS next fall is going back to basics - with a few twists.

After deciding to not introduce a single procedural crime series last fall - a response, in part, to criticism that its schedule was overloaded with same - CBS this fall will introduce two. But nobody will confuse them with CSI or Cold Case. One, The Eleventh Hour (from CSI overlord Jerry Bruckheimer), is about a biophysicist and special science advisor to the government who investigates scientific crises and oddities. The other, The Mentalist, is about a detective who uses his "razor sharp skills of observation" to solve serious crimes.

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler told reporters over breakfast Wednesday morning that both shows definitely fall in the procedural category and emphasized that they will both be strong in character development and evolution. She described the main character in The Mentalist as "eccentric" and said the smart guy at the center of Eleventh Hour is "a little bit the absent-minded professor."

Joining The Mentalist and Eleventh Hour in CBS' 2008 freshman class will be two new comedies, Worst Week (about a young man who screws up whenever he is around his fiancees parents) and Project Gary (starring Jay Mohr and Paula Marshall as newly divorced parents who share custody of their kids and are struggling to re-enter the dating scene), and a comedic drama titled The Ex List, about a woman who is told by a psychic that she has only one year to find a husband or she will be alone forever, and that her perfect mate is a man with whom she has already had relations earlier in her life and must reconnect.

With the possible exception of The Ex List, these shows represent a distinct departure from the attention-grabbing efforts CBS put forth last year at this time, with a slate of funky freshmen intended to generate big buzz that fell well outside of the usual CBS fare and ultimately failed for different reasons. They included the drama with music Viva Laughlin, the edgy reality series Kid Nation and the vampire romance Moonlight, which did manage to build a small but rabid fan base.

Swingtown, a drama about the wild sex lives of upscale suburbanites in the Seventies and arguably the boldest of CBS' new 2007-08 series, or perhaps any CBS series since All in the Family, was bumped to this summer, in large part due to production delays caused by the WGA strike.

So is CBS over the whole buzz-generating thing, one reporter wanted to know?

"We want to get back to making great shows," Tassler's replied, reminding everyone that CBS does comedies and procedural dramas "very well."

It was clear on Wednesday, at the press breakfast and the network's traditional Upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall, that CBS had come up to speed immediately following the end of the 100-day WGA strike. In fact, listening to Tassler excitedly talk about and show clips from so many new series, it was easy to momentarily forget that there had been a strike at all.

"I'm proud of my team," CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves declared at the breakfast. "We met on a weekly basis during the strike. The day after [the strike ended] we hit the ground running. Our development turned out to be terrific. We literally saw 17-18 pieces of material. Sometimes a 20-minute presentation of an hour pilot gives a good impression of what you have."

"Sometimes under duress you make better decisions," Tassler noted.

In addition to CBS' new fall shows, Tassler was also excited about a serialized midseason drama titled Harper's Island, which she described as a "combination of [the Agatha Christie thriller] Ten Little Indians and [the comedy horror flick] Scream. Every week one of our characters meets an unsavory end," she smiled.

Asked if the decision to not renew cult-favorite-of-the-year Moonlight had anything to do with CBS' decision last June to bring back cult-favorite-of-last-year Jericho in response to fan outcry, only to see it fail miserably in its abbreviated second season, Tassler admitted, "It was a factor. It's hard to judge actual numbers. We had to make very tough decisions."

Moonves and his team initiated the annual Upfront press breakfast back in 1996, and every year since that time there has been a scheduling board located at the front of the room, carefully draped until the eagerly anticipated moment when the cloth was pulled away revealing CBS fall schedule (and those of its competitors, including half-sibling The CW and, in earlier years, The WB and UPN). In a sign of the times, the board was retired this year in favor of a screen.

"As you can see, there's no board here," Moonves laughed. "We have broken from tradition and entered the digital age."

At the appropriate moment, a button was pushed and a traditional scheduling board appeared on the screen featuring the fall lineups of CBS, NBC, ABC and The CW. (Fox' fall lineup had not yet been announced.) It felt as if an era had passed.

Be sure to read all of the Upfront 2008: Insights and Updates from JackMyers.com.