You know all those reports about audience erosion and plummeting ratings? They don’t apply to CBS — at least not lately.
Last year, while all of its rivals watched their numbers go down, the Eye experienced gains in both overall viewers (+11%) and adults 18-49 (+3%). It launched the biggest hit of the year ("The Mentalist") and just generally kicked everybody else’s butt (Fox sill won in the demo race).
As a result of last year’s dream season, CBS begins the 2009-10 campaign with few holes and just a handful of new shows. Nina Tassler, the network’s entertainment president, hardly seems relaxed, however.
"I start every season on pins and needles," Tassler insists. "We never take anything for granted."
Probably a good philosophy, especially since there are some potential bumps ahead for CBS.
Some of the network’s biggest guns — the "CSI" franchise, "Survivor" — have been showing their age lately. All still do very well, but ratings are down.
And while the network’s Wednesday comedies aren’t a disaster, there’s no sign they’ll be breaking out as hits anytime soon.
But overall, the CBS lineup is the most stable in broadcast TV by a mile.
Its Monday comedies dominate, with "How I Met Your Mother" now a bona fide hit and "The Big Bang Theory" poised to explode in its new 9:30 timeslot following the still-mighty "Two and a Half Men."
"NCIS" on Tuesday remains the most underappreciated hit on TV, while "Criminal Minds" performs solidly on Wednesday. Friday nights figure to get stronger with the pairing of NBC import "Medium" and "Ghost Whisperer." And "60 Minutes" and "The Amazing Race" are solid on Sundays.
As all this weren’t enough, CBS has the Super Bowl this year. The industry consensus is the Eye should walk away with the total viewer crown again this season, and might even have an outside shot of catching Fox in demos if it gets lucky.
BIG HOPE — "The Good Wife"
Conspiracy theorists might wonder whether CBS was secretly setting up the nation’s politicians, given the number of high-profile cases lately that mirror this show’s plotline.
Starring "ER" vet Julianna Margulies, "Wife" revolves around a loyal spouse who’s forced to return to her legal career when her politico hubby (Chris Noth) ends up in jail following a sex-and-money scandal.
It’s timely, but more importantly, it’s got Margulies in a showy role, as well as a great supporting cast. CBS hasn’t had much luck Tuesdays at 10, but "Good Wife" could reverse that trend.
BIG RISK — "Three Rivers"
CBS execs still get angry letters from fans still mourning the short live of vampire drama "Moonlight." The network hopes to pacify some of those die-hards by casting "Moonlight" lead Alex O’Loughlin in the new Sunday drama about doctors who save lives via organ transplants.
O’Loughlin could draw some eyeballs, but this show’s dark tone — somebody dies at the start of every episode, so that somebody else can live– might prove to be a bummer. Plus, with football and "Family Guy" soaking up the men on Sundays, and "Desperate Housewives" still no slouch, it could be tough for "Rivers" to float.
Every year, CBS seems to rotate in one new comedy on to Mondays — and this year it’s "Accidentally on Purpose," starring Jenna Elfman ("Dharma & Greg") as a thirtysomething journalist who gets knocked up by a much younger chef.
Elfman’s adorable as always, but the pilot for this comedy was short on laughs. Star chemistry is this show’s best shot.
Expect much bigger things from "NCIS: LA," the spinoff of "NCIS" starring LL Cool J that has been genetically engineered to do good things for CBS’s Tuesday lineup. It will not disappoint.
THE NETWORK’S TAKE
Tassler sees big opportunity for CBS in NBC’s decision to dump dramas at 10 p.m. in favor of Jay Leno.
"Having Leno at 10 p.m. means we’re positioned great," she says, explaining that CBS’s crime drama strategy in the hour fits in with how viewers watch TV.
"Most people tend to read before they go to bed, and most of what they read is mysteries and crime novels," Tassler say. "Before people go to bed, they want a yarn, they want mystery. And that’s what we deliver at 10 across the board. For us it’s a great business."
Unless all of its crime dramas collapse at once — a pretty unlikely scenario — CBS seems likely to have another stellar season.
Matching last year’s gains will be tough (unless you count the Super Bowl boost the Eye will get). And we still wish the network wouldn’t get so quickly scared off when creative departures such as "Swingtown" and "Harper’s Island" don’t immediately catch on with audiences.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to see how CBS doesn’t once again win the season in viewers.