As Broadcast TV Tries to Coronavirus-Proof Fall Lineups, Why CBS Is Not Ready for Plan B

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CBS is more optimistic than most about how soon production can resume

Faced with the likelihood that fewer advertisers are ready to make early monetary commitments to book commercials for the upcoming TV season, the broadcast networks are trying to give those advertisers a sure thing this fall. Amid uncertainty about just when TV production can safely resume, broadcasters have mostly pushed back premieres of new series and mainstay originals until midseason, relying on series that have either been completed and haven’t aired yet — or already aired somewhere else. The one exception is CBS, which so far has resisted the call for safe-bet reinforcements. The network announced a fall schedule this week that looks mostly normal and even includes two new series, signaling more optimism compared to its competitors about how soon they can get the cameras rolling again. “We are hopeful shows can start in the summer, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to premiere most, if not all, these shows in the fall,” CBS entertainment president Kelly Kahl told TheWrap. “We have production people who are talking every day to guilds, unions, other studios, health care professionals, city government, county government, state government, about when the shows can get back on their feet in a safe manner. When those best practices are determined, our goal is to be absolutely ready to go into production.” He said the one change the network is already anticipating is the lack of a “Premiere Week” in late September. CBS can be confident about at least one of its fall series: “The Amazing Race,” which was already completed and scheduled to air this summer, was held back. “We are optimistic, but it’s impossible to put a hard fast date on ‘OK, this is when things start,’” Kahl continued, adding that CBS does have a backup plan if production cannot restart in time for the fall, pointing to ViacomCBS’ large stable of content. “If it turns out we need to put some programming on to buy some time until our fall shows are able to premiere, we have absolutely every confidence we can do that,” he said. Meanwhile, Fox and The CW went for the surest bets you can have right now: Shows already filmed. “Next” and “Filthy Rich,” two freshman series picked up a year ago that have yet to find an air date, will now help fill Fox’s fall schedule (both completed production before the shutdown). Fox’s Sunday lineup of animated series like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” will remain untouched as animation has been one of the few segments of the business that is able produce new episodes with everyone working remotely. Fox is hopeful that its reality hit “The Masked Singer” can start up production for its fourth season by August, which should give it enough of a runway to make it to air in time for the fall. Fox’s biggest uncertainty comes with its Thursday night NFL games, though in recent days states like New York and California have signaled willingness to host spectator-free games. That, along with the loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across several states, bodes well for live sports’ eventual return to the field. Fox’s biggest eye-raising move, and one that signaled how the broadcast industry views the likelihood of its live-action series getting back to work in the near future, was grabbing the first season of the “Bad Boys” spinoff, “L.A.’s Finest,” which has already aired on the little-viewed Spectrum Originals. The CW went a step further and announced that it would consider January 2021 the official start of its new season, holding back its entire roster. The network will air the full runs of DC Universe’s “Swamp Thing” and CBS All Access’ “Tell Me a Story” in the fall, alongside the last batch of the long-running series “Supernatural,” which was shut down with only two more episodes to film. The network will have seven episodes in total, giving it a bit more leeway for restarting production. The rest of The CW’s fall lineup consists of summer series that are being held back and international acquisitions like “Dead Pixels” and “Coroner.” CW chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz explained the decision to push their lineup back until January was to “give our producers and the studios ample time to get their shows back up and running in the best and safest ways as possible.” NBC, which has yet to announce its fall schedule, acquired the Canadian medical drama “Transplant” to likely air in the fall. ABC has yet to announce any plans about how it will handle programming in the fall. For most networks, the calculus was this: They know for 100% certainty that already-completed shows like “Next” and “Swamp Thing” will air, but cannot say the same for new episodes of existing shows like “9-1-1” and “Batwoman” (which now has to recast its lead role after Ruby Rose’s stunning decision to hang up her cowl). For CBS, it’s a bold gamble that could leave the network with the strongest fall slate — the network would bring back nearly its entire primetime lineup from this season — or reaching into its reserves like everyone else.