CBS serves up ‘comfort food’ on Friday nights and it’s paying off
If the TV industry gave out an award for the most uncool night of programming, CBS’s Friday lineup would win it hands down.
“MacGyver” and “Hawaii Five-0” are reboots of old series, an anathema to TV critics who believe the industry is in a golden age of creativity. They lead into “Blue Bloods,” a combination cop show and family drama, featuring the 72-year-old Tom Selleck, the quintessential 1980s TV star.
None of that bothers CBS Corp. chairman Leslie Moonves, who maintains he will take ratings over Emmy statuettes any day. All three shows rank among the top 20 most-watched broadcast shows in prime time. Their success on Friday nights has helped make them highly attractive to international broadcasters and streaming services and valuable revenue generators for the storied broadcast network.
“Friday night is the great unsung hero of our schedule,” Mooves said in a recent interview.
CBS, which is the most-watched network overall, is dominant on Friday with 10.4 million viewers, doubling the numbers for its broadcast competitors ABC (5.7 million), NBC (5 million) and Fox (4.83 million). The growth has come on a night that has become less of a priority over the years for when TV network executives set their schedules. Expensive scripted shows with big ratings usually end up on Sunday through Thursday, when more viewers are at home and available to watch. Friday night is generally when most networks air low-cost reality TV programs, which are bought from outside producers, or news magazines.
CBS has taken a different tack. The network has instead used Friday to build and sustain scripted programming assets that can become ongoing businesses for the company. CBS has succeeded by scheduling escapist, broad-appeal fare that does not require a weekly commitment to follow the plot. These dramas offer up plenty of action with crime-fighting heroes who aren’t conflicted.
“It’s not ‘House of Cards’ or ‘Westworld’ and I think that’s a good thing,” said Kelly Kahl, senior vice president, CBS primetime. “People get home at the end of the week and they want to put their feet up and be entertained. Our lineup is really good at that.”
For CBS, finding new strategies to selling its shows is vital, especially at a time when ad revenue growth for the entire TV business remains in the low single-digit range. The company, split off from Viacom in 2006, is smaller than other media conglomerates that own NBC (Comcast), ABC (the Walt Disney Co.) or Fox (21st Century Fox). CBS does not have a stable of big cable networks or a major film studio that can generate significant revenue. Every piece of prime-time real estate on the broadcast schedule is needed to maximize its opportunities to create new shows that it can profit on.
CBS already has the two most-watched programs in the world with “CSI,” which ended production in 2015, and “NCIS.” Together they have generated billions of dollars in global sales. But nothing lasts forever, which is why CBS needs to use its schedule to launch and sustain new shows that it owns.
First year series “MacGyver,” reviving the character that uses his scientific smarts to get out of jams in unconventional ways, has improved its 8 p.m. time period by 29%. The ratings have helped lift the 9 p.m. show “Hawaii Five-0” by 10% to 12.2 million viewers. At 10 p.m., “Blue Bloods” has gained 6%, rising to 13.9 million viewers.
“They have a strategy and it’s very consistent,” said Preston Beckman, a former network executive and now a television consultant.
They have a strategy and it’s very consistent.
— Preston Beckman, a former network executive, current television consultant
The CBS viewers on Friday have a median age of 63, which is well above the typical range of 54 to 55 for broadcast prime time. But the shows have a large enough audience that they also win their time periods in the 18 to 49 age group that is coveted by most advertisers.
“CBS is like comfort food, especially for older viewers who are more likely to be home on that night,” said Billie Gold, vice president and director of programming research for the media buying firm Amplifi US.
Gold notes that much of the viewing is done “live” instead of on DVR, which means commercials are more likely to get seen — something that advertisers desire.
While CBS is turning a profit from the prime-time exposure of the shows on Friday, it’s the sale of the shows to streaming services and an expanding international market that is making them dependable assets that can generate revenue for years.
“The thing that’s changing in big territories — France, U.K. and Australia — are the streaming services,” said Moonves. “It’s not only Netflix and Amazon, although they’ve become very important, but it’s also local streaming video on demand services. Ten years ago in France I would have four people to sell a program to. Now I have 15. The price and the bids go up a lot because of that.”
To be sure, CBS is hardly the only beneficiary of the trend. Executives at other companies say they are also seeing the benefits of streaming, which helps offset the pressure those same services are putting on network ratings by pulling some viewers away.
CBS does not break out the revenue generated by its shows. But at an investment conference last year, the company said it takes in $3.5 million per episode just from international broadcasters who buy “Hawaii Five-0.” CBS will have produced 168 episodes of the series by the end of this season.
Counting revenue from domestic syndication and streaming services, a hit show can take in a total of $5 million to $6 million an episode.
In its last report to investors, CBS said it has seen third quarter revenue from streaming services increase by 40% compared with a year ago, contributing to $1.1 billion in program licensing and sales during the period.
Streaming services can also introduce a show to viewers who will then watch it on traditional TV.
Moonves believes that viewers who discover “Blue Bloods” on Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, are coming to CBS on Friday night. The show currently has its highest ratings in seven seasons on the air.
The familiar names and what executive producer Peter Lenkov calls “blue sky” settings of “MacGyver” and “Hawaii Five-0” make the shows appealing to global program buyers.
“Action adventure and escapist entertainment translate very well,” said Moonves. “The language is less important.”
Identifying those shows that will work remains a challenge, but Moonves looks for help where he can get it. He realized that “MacGyver” had potential as an 8 p.m. show that families could watch when he showed the pilot episode to his young son Charlie.
“Now he’s a fan,” Moonves said.
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