Upfronts 2013: CBS tinkers with playbook with ‘Hostages,’ single-camera sitcoms

NEW YORK — Every year at Upfront Week, CBS represents stability in an unstable business. Where the other networks at Upfront Week seem to be in a constant state of turmoil, swapping out executives and casting about for a workable business model, CBS has had the same management team in place for 18 years, is the one broadcast network left that actually operates like – and has the audience of – a broadcaster, and runs a very predictable, very successful playbook. This will be the first season since 1991-92 that the network will finish a season in first place among adults 18-49, the demographic advertisers care about most.

So going into the upfronts, you could have made some easy predictions about what CBS would do: another “NCIS” spin-off, probably airing after the other two; a “Beverly Hills Cop” sequel (with Eddie Murphy in a recurring role) to appeal to multiple generations of viewers; lots of crime procedurals that could comfortably air repeats throughout the year; and another freshman class of traditional multi-camera sitcoms that won’t get the buzz of the stuff that NBC, FOX and ABC do, but will get ratings that those networks would kill for.

You also would have been wrong on pretty much every front.

“NCIS: Red” was not picked up, as CBS decided they would rather protect the “NCIS” brand than extend it with a show that didn’t quite work. “Beverly Hills Cop” was passed over in favor of higher-concept new dramas, one of which – Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Hostages” – is so heavily-serialized that it will air only 15 episodes this season before going off the air to be replaced by spy drama “Intelligence.” And two of the network’s new comedies – including Robin Williams in “The Crazy Ones,” which will be one of the tentpoles of a new four-sitcom Thursday bloc – are single-camera, shot on film in the style of “New Girl,” “Parks and Recreation,” etc.

If CBS is the one network whose business model seems to be working, why are they now taking pages from their competitors’ playbooks?

Well, they are and they aren’t. Only two out of eight fall CBS sitcoms will be single-camera, and both of the mid-season sitcoms are multi-cam: the returning “Mike & Molly” (which got a full 22-episode order despite not being on the fall schedule) and the new “Friends With Better Lives.” Even without “NCIS: Red” or “Beverly Hills Cop,” there are still plenty of crime shows. And the “Hostages”/”Intelligence” timeslot share is the only one planned for a network where reruns still have value, as most of CBS’ shows will air with the same scheduling patterns they always have.

“Hostages” was a unique case of Bruckheimer asking to only do 15 episodes for a show – about Toni Collette as a surgeon whose family is held hostage when she’s asked to operate on the President – that would be tough to stretch out to the usual 22 or 24. And that gave CBS license to experiment with what the other networks are trying with shorter seasons – or, in ABC’s case, splitting seasons into two chunks to avoid repeats – without having to do it across the board, especially when so many CBS series repeat well.

“When people love ‘NCIS,’ they want to see it every week,” explained CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl. “This works Monday at 10, but most nights of the week, people want to see their shows, and we’re gonna give ’em to ’em.”

Similarly, the single-camera comedies aren’t taking over the schedule, and one of them stars Williams, whom CBS trusts enough to air the show Thursday at 9, rather than putting “Two and a Half Men” in front of it. CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler said the network develops single-camera comedy scripts every year – in part because so many younger comedy writers prefer to work in that format – and “This just happened to be the batch we shot, and the best ones made it to the schedule.”

In other words, this is CBS continuing to do what it does, but at least trying out other possibilities for a changing world where one day their model may not work. It’s sensible, but not complacent.

Fienberg has the full schedule, and I have some thoughts night-by-night:

MONDAY: “How I Met Your Mother” is going into its final season, and CBS has a year to groom a replacement. At 8:30 is the other new single-camera sitcom, “We Are Men,” with Tony Shalhoub, Kal Penn and Jerry O’Connell. “2 Broke Girls” is terrible, but it remains a success and will be back at 9, with a new Chuck Lorre-produced sitcom (“Mom,” with Anna Farris and Allison Janney) at 9:30, at least temporarily displacing another one (“Mike & Molly”). “Hawaii Five-O” gets sent to Friday (its international sales are what’s keeping it alive; its ratings on CBS almost don’t matter) in favor of the “Hostages”/”Intelligence” split.

TUESDAY: With “NCIS: Red” not quite up to snuff, CBS instead imports “Person of Interest” to the night at 10. This season, “NCIS,” “NCIS: LA” and “PoI” were the three most-watched dramas on television; the last time the three top dramas aired on the same night was with “Dukes of Hazzard,” “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest” in the ’80s.

WEDNESDAY: Status quo: “Survivor” into “Criminal Minds” into “CSI.” If it ain’t broke, do not fix.

THURSDAY: Here’s the big move. “Big Bang Theory” has been such a monster for CBS on the night – as Kahl noted, if you just took the difference in ratings between “BBT” and “Parks and Recreation,” that number would be enough to crack the Nielsen top 10 – that the network has finally decided to expand to a four-comedy bloc on the most profitable night of the week. “Big Bang” stays where it is, “The Crazy Ones” (created by David E. Kelley, of all people, and co-starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Wolk and Hamish Linklater) goes to 9, followed by “Two and a Half Men” (possibly in its final season) and “Elementary.” The other new show is “The Millers,” from “Raising Hope” and “Yes, Dear” creator Greg Garcia, a multi-generational family comedy with Will Arnett, Margo Martindale, Beau Bridges and JB Smoove. And if either of the newbies don’t work (here or on Monday), “Mike & Molly” will have 22 episodes that are easy to slot in.

FRIDAY: “CSI: NY” gets a gold watch for retirement, with “Hawaii Five-0” at 9 joining holdovers “Undercover Boss” and “Blue Bloods.”

SATURDAY: Repeats and “48 Hours,” but this season we’ll get sitcom repeats at 8 to join the crime drama repeats at 9.

SUNDAY: Another status quo night: “60 Minutes,” “The Amazing Race,” “The Good Wife” and “The Mentalist.” In discussing the “Hostages” arrangement, a reporter noted that “Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King wish they could do fewer episodes per season; Tassler said, “Obviously, they would like to do fewer. Every showrunner would, but they have a very loyal fanbase.” (Kahl later said that the show would likely be in repeats or pre-empted for a chunk of time in the middle of the season due to big events on their network and elsewhere in January and February.)

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com