The TV industry is unveiling its coming season to advertisers in Manhattan this week at a series of events known as the upfronts. Three New York Times media reporters — John Koblin, Edmund Lee and Michael M. Grynbaum — assess the CBS presentation at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday.
JOHN Last year, Leslie Moonves was the chief executive of CBS, and he was met by a throng of well-wishers at the CBS upfront after-party at the Plaza. This year?
EDMUND All Shari Redstone.
JOHN The head of CBS’s parent company didn’t take the stage during the presentation, but at the party she was met by a receiving line that included the incoming “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, the “CBS Sunday Morning” anchor Jane Pauley and the new CBS News president Susan Zirinsky. “Oh my God!” Redstone said, as she spotted and collapsed into the arms of David Nevins, CBS’s new chief creative officer. Last year at this time, Moonves was at war with Redstone over moves she’d made to bring about a merger between CBS and its sibling company, Viacom. This year, it was her party.
EDMUND She ate it up. And it looked like she got into a deep discussion with Zirinsky. A few feet away was Joe Ianniello, the acting chief executive, greeting producers and stars. After a rocky start, Redstone and Ianniello have come to have a good working relationship, from what I’m told. His interim contract was recently extended through the end of the year, and he’s the one who invited her to the upfronts. She hadn’t attended in three years, she said.
JOHN She was decidedly not invited last time around. In the Moonves corner of the room a year ago, everyone was on war footing. He was doing everything in his power — he took her to court two days before last year’s upfront — to save the CBS Corporation from the merger she was hoping for. This was months before Moonves had been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, which led to his ouster, and long before CBS started a dramatic companywide reckoning, which isn’t over yet. And what does Redstone want? Where will CBS be a year from now?
EDMUND If she gets her wish, by this time next year, CBS and Viacom will be onstage together. She still controls both companies, and CBS has largely a new board of directors, which seems open to a possible deal, as is Viacom. An agreement could come along as soon as a few months from now.
JOHN There were other changes at this year’s upfront. The company had always been narrowly focused on the broadcast network at this event. Not this year. Liev Schreiber, the star of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” fronted the sizzle reel to show off all the CBS properties, including its streaming channel (home of “The Good Fight,” “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone”), Showtime and even its syndicated programs (“Judge Judy,” “Entertainment Tonight”). That was all in addition to network hits like “Survivor.” “We are a team,” Schreiber said, a line meant to put CBS in the company of NBC and Disney, which included their whole corporate families in their presentations this week.
EDMUND It’s all about “scale,” a favorite word of media executives and advertisers. Other key words: “diversity” and “stability.” The new CBS lineup reflected that, mostly. Not too many new shows — I counted eight — and, yes, more onscreen diversity at the network home of “Bull” and “Blue Bloods.”
JOHN The sizzle reel that had everyone talking in the after-party was the new thriller from the critics’ favorite producing team of Robert and Michelle King, the couple behind “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.” It’s called “Evil” and it looked pretty spooky. For years I’ve heard about upfront trailers that could actually wow a crowd. With the exception of “Designated Survivor” — a show rescued by Netflix after ABC ended its network run after Season 2 — I have yet to see that happen. Until “Evil.” We heard gasps from the audience.
EDMUND It was spooky. Especially the scene where she’s imagining a ghoul creeping up from the foot of her bed. Unusual for a CBS show.
JOHN Michael, you’ve been awfully quiet.
MICHAEL CBS broke with tradition by inviting Zirinsky, its president of news, onto the upfront stage.
JOHN No one at the after-party could quite remember when this last happened.
MICHAEL “Z” gave a full-throated pitch for the new lineup featuring Gayle King in the morning and O’Donnell anchoring “CBS Evening News.” King praised her new boss as “the most transformational leader we can hope for,” and the presentation seemed designed to emphasize a fresh start for a news division that has lost big names on both sides of the camera. “It’s our time,” O’Donnell said. We’ll see if the ratings agree.
JOHN The new incarnation of “CBS This Morning” starts Monday. There was another prime-time show that executives were high on — the new Chuck Lorre comedy, “Bob Hearts Abishola.” In the actual rendering of the title, the word “Hearts” is a heart emoji.
EDMUND Not good for S.E.O. No one’s going to search for an emoji. But like “Evil,” the heart emoji show — that’s what I’m calling it — was a bit of a departure for CBS. Yes, it’s still a three-camera Chuck Lorre confection, but the setup is different — a love story between a middle-aged white man and a black woman who’s an immigrant.
JOHN The other strange thing we saw before the trailers today: a title card that proudly announced a “CBS Original Series,” à la a premium cable network. The other strange thing we saw today? The sun, after two cold and rain-soaked days.
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