CBS tried not to look "smug" Wednesday as it told advertisers a simple story: We're No. 1.
The network delivered its upfront presentation to ad buyers a day after ABC's Jimmy Kimmel called CBS executives "smug motherf—–s" at his own network's upfront. CBS CEO Les Moonves jokingly pledged to try to be less smug Wednesday, but couldn't resist a sharp dig at NBC's morning and late-night "drama."
Moonves said his network believes drama belongs in primetime – "not at 7 in the morning or 11:30 at night." As he spoke, an image of Matt Lauer and a sobbing Ann Curry appeared behind him, followed by a shot of Jay Leno and incoming "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon.
In response to the shakeup in the rest of late night, CBS surprised advertisers with a surprise guest appearance from David Letterman. As he took the Carnegie Hall stage, he gave Moonves a long hug, joking, "I'm honored to be here for your pledge drive."
Advertisers gave a warm response to most of CBS's 2013-14 lineup, from the dramas "Hostages" and "Intelligence" to the new sitcoms "Mom" and "The Millers." CBS suggested the David E. Kelley advertising comedy "The Crazy Ones," starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar, might be especially popular with advertisers.
Williams took the stage to say he hasn't been on TV regularly since "Mork & Mindy" 30 years ago. He said the television landscape has changed so much since then that now there's a network for everyone.
"If you're a little child who wants to be transported to the land of make-believe, there's Fox News," he said, scoring big laughs.
As part of its pledge not be smug, CBS made a big show of how subtly it was touting its first-place status this season in total viewers. For the first time in two decades, it is also first in the key 18-49 demo.
"Relax. We're not going to give you a hard sell, because at CBS, we don't need to," said CBS president of network sales Jo Ann Ross. As she spoke, statistics and arrows highlighting the network's success were beamed on her skirt.
That wasn't the end of the self-praise.
"When you Google 'Big Bang Theory,' you get our show, not the creation of the entire universe," said CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler.
Why all the confidence? Because CBS is the only network this season that isn't down in total viewers. It's up slightly.
But its first-place status in the 18-49 demographic has more to do with its competitors' failures than its own success. All of the four biggest networks — including CBS — are down in the demo this season. CBS is just down the least, which allowed it to surpass Fox at No. 1 as "American Idol" has lost viewers this season.
That didn't stop CBS from boasting that it no longer deserves its reputation as the old folks' network. (Kimmel said Wednesday he would stop joking about the age of CBS's audience when "my grandmother throws away her 'Mentalist' hemorrhoid donut.")
"The network that programs to everyone is number one in 18-49," Moonves told ad buyers. "When making your buys, please: Don't hold our youth against us."
Moonves said his network struggles to find new ways to make its pitch to advertisers, which he summarized as, "No. 1, No. 1, No. 1, up, up, up, the world is a beautiful place."
He said the network could further condense it into a tweet: "Upfront message easy. CBS wins everything, #dropthemic."
CBS was modest about one thing, joking about the partial blackout at the Superdome during the Super Bowl. But it was obviously misplaced modesty: As advertisers knew, the outage was the fault of the venue, not the network.
The network opened its upfront by noting the final season next year of "How I Met Your Mother." The cast sang "One More Year" to the tune of "One More Day" from "Les Miserables."
It was the second time advertisers have heard the song this week: At NBC's upfront Monday, Fallon and Leno dueted on it — partly to prove again that there's no "drama" between them.