CBS scripts its way to No. 2

Plunge into the backwaters of Wikipedia and you can surface with a diverting little treasure that lists the promotional slogans for CBS dating back to 1963. Some of this information needs clarification: “The Revolutionaries Are on CBS” was a famously awful, late-'60s catchphrase for CBS Records, not the TV network.

During the years, the broadcaster went through taglines such as “Turn Us On, We’ll Turn You On” (1978) and “It’s All Right Here” (1993). A few seasons back, though, CBS marketed itself as “America’s Most-Watched Network,” a claim that was simple and accurate.

But it’s no longer true. This season, for the first time in six years, CBS, the all-ages home to powerhouse hits such as the “CSI” and “Survivor” franchises as well as Paleolithic artifacts such as “60 Minutes,” will almost certainly forfeit its crown as America’s No. 1 network in total viewers, as measured by Nielsen Media Research.


That title will now go to . . . wait, is it possible? Fox! Fox, the youngest and most youth-seeking of all the major networks, forever a laggard in the race to reach the most American TV sets, will grab the glory for the first time. Through Feb. 24, Fox had edged CBS in average prime-time viewers, 11.3 million to 10.9 million, and its advantage is likely to swell as “American Idol” builds to its May finale.

True, Fox got a huge boost from its record-breaking Super Bowl telecast last month (Fox has to fill only 15 hours of prime time per week versus 22 for CBS, so huge fluctuations on single programs have a proportionally larger impact on its final results). But even tossing aside the big game as an anomaly, CBS noses ahead by just 400,000 viewers or so, a disparity Fox could easily overcome by season’s end.

This is quite a reversal. During the last decade, as rivals elbowed one another for dominance in the adults-ages-18-to-49 demographic -- the coin of the realm for youth-obsessed advertisers -- CBS stuck to a retail strategy of appealing to as many viewers as possible. That included the over-50 set that Madison Avenue pretends is invisible.

The approach made the network the butt of many jokes about being “geezer central,” and it’s definitely made CBS grayer, for example, by continuing to employ the nearly 90-year-old Andy Rooney as a high-profile commentator on its top newsmagazine.

But CBS has been rewarded for erecting that big tent, earning bragging rights as America’s top network in 1999, 2001, 2003 and since.

Now, calling the folks at CBS competitive is like calling Mandy Patinkin mercurial. The corporate HQ, New York’s Black Rock, has a contact high from inhaling Chief Executive Leslie Moonves’ abundant testosterone. So they’re not waving any white flags over there.

As soon as this columnist finished summarizing the stats behind the total-viewer turnabout this season, David Poltrack, CBS’ executive vice president of research and planning, quickly said: “We’re not conceding.

“Obviously, Fox is in the driver’s seat at this point,” he continued. But “we think it’s going to be close.” (Fox, not ready to declare victory, declined to say anything on the record.)

A truly dedicated audience-analysis guru, Poltrack, dubbed “Poltie” in the corridors of CBS, paints a picture of a season totally upended by the recent writers strike, of which CBS’ 2007-08 lineup is just another casualty. (Interestingly, Moonves reassured Wall Street analysts last week that the strike, while lasting longer than he anticipated, hadn’t adversely affected the financial outlook at parent company CBS Corp.)

“I don’t think there’s anyone who’s going to read anything into this season,” Poltrack said. “Our dominant franchise is scripted programming, and we have been without it for most of the season.”

Hard to argue that point. Take “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” long CBS’ top regular series. The forensics show ran its last original episode, written before the strike, on Jan. 10; it won’t return with another until April 3. The involuntary hiatus afflicted most of the rest of CBS’ lineup as well, including the promising freshman sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

During the layoff, meanwhile, Fox has been piling up huge numbers with “American Idol” and, to a lesser extent, its lie-detector game show “The Moment of Truth.”

On the other hand, no one told Moonves and CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler they had to stick with repeats of scripted shows as the strike loomed. NBC, for instance, moved to replace its struck programs with quick-to-produce reality fare such as “American Gladiators,” a plan that’s yielded mixed benefits but has at least kept ratings from wilting entirely in certain time periods.

Moonves seems to have bet that his network could hang on with repeats because the work stoppage would be brief. But everyone knew that CBS’ lack-of-contingency plan was going to be painful if the strike lasted awhile. It did, and it is.

And that, more than the vicissitudes of the strike, may be the ultimate lesson of this season’s ratings upset. A heavy reliance on scripted programming just won’t cut it for a broadcaster any more. Today, a TV network has to pay much more attention than in the past to what sometimes is still misleadingly called “alternative programming,” that is, reality shows, special events and even sports.

Think about it. Twice in the last decade, CBS has surrendered the total-viewer race mostly to killer unscripted shows on rival networks: “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on ABC in 1999-2000 and now Fox’s “Idol.” (Yes, CBS has “Survivor,” but the average audience for that franchise is now about half the 29.8-million viewers for “Survivor II” back in ’01. Time to refresh!)

And there’s no question that Fox is being helped enormously by its prime-time sports package, not just the Super Bowl (which rotates on the networks and was on CBS last year) but also postseason baseball and college football’s Bowl Championship Series. You can see this by eliminating all sports from the ratings picture this season: CBS easily dispatches runner-up ABC, 10.6 million versus 9.7 million.

Is CBS getting the message? Hard to say. “Survivor” and “CSI” aren’t headed to cold storage any time soon. And Moonves’ network, as we’ve seen, isn’t a “mea culpa” kind of place, so any epiphany may not be publicly proclaimed. But you can do worse than judge a network by its programming acquisitions. Last week CBS confirmed that on Saturday nights it would start airing mixed martial arts bouts, a kind of reality and sports hybrid designed to appeal to young adults.

Good grief, what will Andy Rooney say?


The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at