Making good on its promise to develop unconventional programs that appeal to younger audiences, CBS has picked up two pilots about the living dead.
The network has ordered “Twilight,” a project from “The Matrix” executive producer Joel Silver about a vampire private detective. CBS also bought “Babylon Fields,” an apocalyptic ensemble comedy-drama executive-produced by “Dexter” director Michael Cuesta about a group that fights zombies. “Twilight” is produced by Warner Bros., while “Babylon Fields” is from 20th Century Fox Television.
The pilots join CBS’s list of previously announced pickups, such as “Swingtown” (open marriage in the 1970s), “Demons” (about an exorcist) and “Viva Laughlin” (a musical about a family running a casino).
The new shows set up the crime-drama-fueled network for potential image makeover next fall. Though CBS currently ranks No. 1 in both viewers and the coveted 18 to 49 demographic season to date, network executives have recently expressed frustration that their shows haven’t received as much critical acclaim and industry awards as some competitors’ programs.
“It’s frustrating because we feel we have the quality programming on CBS, but it doesn’t get the buzz that other programming does,” said CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group President Nancy Tellem. “We would like to see the critics embrace our shows, but ultimately the viewers really count. We would like both … with respect to our pilots, we want to swing big this year and reach the right balance.”
Among CBS executives, “balance” is a current keyword. The network doesn’t want to be the “CSI” network. It doesn’t want to become the apocalyptic drama network either. The goal is to complement proven core programming with quality, buzzworthy shows.
As it happens, there is an inherent safeguard against CBS changing too dramatically next fall: The network has few open slots on its schedule, which is considered the right kind of problem for a network to have.
Some CBS shows may draw critical flack, but they’re also a ratings-generating lineup of largely nonserialized programs that create a dependable season-long brick wall for a schedule. In CBS’s current lineup, only Tuesdays at 10 p.m. requires filling. (The network most recently tried “3 lbs” in the space.)
“The good news is the bar is going to be high [for getting on the schedule],” said Kelly Kahl, executive VP of programming and scheduling at CBS. “Shows that are kind of doing well, but not hitting out of park, are going to have to compete for a space.”
Depending on the number of new fall contenders, one option is pushing either “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race” until 2008, Mr. Kahl said. Typically the reality shows have two runs per year, in both the fall and the spring.
Before making decisions about fall, however, CBS first has to make it to the finish line in May.
Back in October the network was off to a rocky start. Its “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case” moved to competitive Sunday night and “CSI” lost viewers to ABC’s titan “Grey’s Anatomy” on Thursdays. “Survivor” showed ratings erosion, and CBS’s new apocalypse drama “Jericho” was overlooked amid a flood of serialized shows.
Gradually, CBS’s story turned around. “Trace” and “Case” improved Sunday nights. “Survivor” ratings rebounded. “Jericho” modestly broke out. “CSI” occupied the enviable position of being on top of ratings charts.
CBS is still down in the ratings year to year, but only by a tenth of a rating point in the younger demographic. With the Super Bowl coming to CBS next month, that gap is sure to be erased. The network will bring back “Survivor” and “Jericho” and try to maintain its strength for the home stretch.
For the first couple of weeks in January, there was even talk of CBS winning the season. Then “American Idol” had its record-setting debut, which turns the ratings race into something akin to a “Survivor” endurance challenge. The question then became, how long can CBS hold onto the lead before dropping into a respectable second?
“We’re seeing the door swing the other way,” Mr. Kahl said. “Some people thought we were down and out as early as a month ago, but we know our audience, know our shows and there’s a method to having strength throughout the year. We think we’ll be competitive the rest of the way.”