CBS launched its fall schedule this week, releasing some half-dozen new series with blockbuster dreams. But amid the traditional rollout of broadcast hopefuls is one of the trickier balances in modern TV. The network spent much of last year dogged by sexual-misconduct allegations against former chief executive Leslie Moonves along with accusations of sexual harassment on multiple sets. Now, CBS must advance a diverse and socially conscious post-Moonves form of storytelling without abandoning the middle-of-the-road formula he rode to great success.
“Our goal is to figure out the next generation of shows and make some unexpected moves while still appealing to the core CBS audience,” said David Nevins, CBS’ chief creative officer and Moonves’ programming successor. “We can broaden and we can be more surprising, but without alienating people.”
CBS has been the most-watched broadcast network every year for the past 11 — meaning its primetime shows average the most (if not the youngest) viewers. That was largely the handiwork of Moonves, who relied on well-worn techniques like star casting and trusty formats such as crime-solving dramas and broad comedies, often ignoring the socially and narratively ambitious shows becoming popular elsewhere. Under the disgraced mogul, the network effortlessly launched one hit after another — like “NCIS,” which, with 16 million viewers last season, was the most watched drama on broadcast television.
Yet CBS executives know they need to move on from the Moonves mindset — in part to cleanse the palette post-scandal but also to attract younger audiences at a network where the viewer median age is nearly 60.
“There’s a realization throughout the company that the TV landscape is changing and we have to change with it if we want to stay relevant,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’s president of entertainment, referring to younger-skewing hits like “This Is Us” on rival NBC and a slew of Netflix and HBO programming that competes for viewer mindshare. “We have to dig a little deeper.”
Several new shows embody the goal.
There is “The Unicorn,” a half-hour program centering on a widower dad looking to return to the dating scene. The single-camera show often brings a touch of melancholy.
CBS also is debuting “Bob Hearts Abishola,” which features go-to producer kingmaker Chuck Lorre, known for white-bread comedy hits like “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.” But this time Lorre is coming at the network with a muticultural romance between a Midwestern white salesman and a Nigerian immigrant that addresses questions of assimilation and alienation.
Perhaps the best example of the new direction is “Evil.”
The show centers on the rival worldviews of a psychologist, a priest and a contractor as they investigate assorted crimes. With a cast anchored by the Dutch actress Katja Herbers, the African-American actor Mike Colter and Aasif Mandvi, of British-Indian background, it is CBS’ most woke show in some time.
It is also CBS’ most ambitious show in some time. Moonves’ best known franchises were tidy mysteries that didn’t go heavy on topicality. “Evil,” on the other hand, takes on mass shooters, social-media radicalism and questions of faith and reason. And it will run for a cable-like 15 episodes, compared to network’s traditional 22.
The series comes from Robert and Michelle King, the duo that created the drama “The Good Wife” for CBS a decade ago but moved to the company’s ambitious streaming platform CBS All Access for its politically minded spinoff “The Good Fight” in 2017.
Now they’re bringing their weighty new effort back to CBS.
“If we’re successful, we’re in a big tent. And All-Access is not as big a tent,” said Michelle King, explaining the decision to return as she sat with her husband and creative partner near the show’s sound stage.
Stars said they felt the significance as they shot the series.
Herbers, a veteran of “The Americans,” “The Leftovers” and “Westworld,” said she believes “Evil” has a lot in common with the other shows on her resume.
“So far it doesn’t feel different from them at all,” she said. “It feels like we’re trying to tell just as important a story as we did [with those]."
Colter said he’s “happy to be on a network show that’s pushing boundaries. Because the only way to compete with streaming is to push boundaries," he added."
The creators say that they can raise bold subjects, like Moonves, using subtlety.
“To me, it’s not specifically about Les Moonves,” Robert King said of the episode involving the producer. “But it is about the question of ‘is it all right to be a [jerk] at work because you’re birthing something beautiful?’ The show examines that mindset.”
There will also be a mass shooter episode later in the season that elicited some difficult conversations with writers and the network in the wake of El Paso and Dayton. But the episode will proceed as planned, Robert King said.
The network shift is in part the result of the leadership of David Nevins, the longtime head of CBS’s sister company Showtime who was named CBS’ chief creative officer after Moonves’ resigned last September. Moonves was officially fired for cause in December after a company investigation determined he was guilty of “willful and material malfeasance.”
Nevins said he wants “Emmy-caliber” programming a — a major statement for a network that hasn’t won an outstanding comedy or drama Emmy in 14 years. It’s a particular challenge given the temptation to put its most prestigious shows on All Access — and a merger with Viacom that could bring corporate pressure to work commercial-minded cable properties into the schedule.
Whether the gamble will pay off in the ratings is also an open question.
“Evil” has generated a high awareness level — 26 percent of respondents in a new study from the research group Ipsos said they had an “intent to view” the series, the third-highest percentage of any new fall show. But such studies are iffy predictors.
And some wonder how far CBS will — or should — go. The question, they say, cuts to the role of a broadcast network. While the trend now is toward edgier material, CBS has benefited from being a bulwark for the millions of viewers who aren’t running to check out television’s more provocative offerings.
Preston Beckman, a longtime television executive at Fox and other companies, noted that the new shows will co-exist alongside several time-tested “NCIS” series, a new broad sitcom starring Patricia Heaton and the Dick Wolf drama "FBI,” which averaged nearly 13 million viewers last season, its first.
“There is more emphasis on diversity. But I don’t know that they will change how they operate. I don’t know that they should want to change how they operate.”
“CBS has never felt guilty about getting a lot of 50+ viewers,” he said.
Nevins said that he felt this tension. “We’ve done very well with older demographic.” he said. “But you also need to change. You don’t want your audience to continually age."