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CBS' rise in ratings is tempered by return of `Idol'

January 19, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — CBS, historically seen as the network for older viewers, has found itself quite popular this season with the younger set. And a trio of CBS executives wasted little time Thursday morning trumpeting the steady-as-she-goes network's rise to No. 1 in the highly coveted 18-to-49 age demographic after 17 weeks into the 2006-07 season.

"When we have a chance to brag about the 18-to-49 demo," said CBS programming chief Kelly Kahl during the morning's executive session at the midseason press tour, "we're going to do it."

But any celebrating is clouded by Fox's "American Idol," which registered huge audiences in its sixth season premiere this week.

The first two "Idol" episodes each drew about 37 million viewers -- astonishing numbers in the current age of audience fragmentation.

"Our shows aren't 'Idol' proof," added Kahl, making special note of the solid performance of "NCIS" against Fox's ratings giant. "But they are 'Idol' resistant."

Kahl was on stage with Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment, and Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Group.

CBS' solid but not terribly flashy schedule has prompted its executives to seek out shows that will create more buzz. Though they own some of the most popular shows with the "CSI" franchise, CBS' targeting of the broadest audience has made it seem sleepy in comparison with more youth-oriented networks. So far this season, they have found success in this strategy with "Jericho," but failed with "Smith," which was canceled after only three episodes.

"We want to turn it up a notch," said Tassler. "We want to find shows that are going to be talked about."

But at least in the spring, there isn't much to discuss. The network is launching just one show, a new comedy called "Rules of Engagement" starring David Spade. The fairly traditional-looking sitcom begins airing Feb. 5 at 9:30 p.m., and clearly CBS executives hope its humor can cut into the serialized seriousness of its hot competitors in the Monday time slot -- NBC's "Heroes" and Fox's "24."

Tassler said there may be more to talk about in the fall when a couple of shows could boost the network's profile among the media and public.

Barbara Hall, the creative force behind "Joan of Arcadia," is working on a show infused with dark humor and irony about demons. And another program tentatively called "Swing Town," which CBS is considering, is an "Ice Storm"-like look at three Chicago couples in the '70s dealing with open marriages.

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