CBS and the Law of Competitive Balance -

CBS and the Law of Competitive Balance


One more comment on the U.S. fall TV schedule announcements: CBS, which is thought of as the network with the most stable lineup, is paradoxically the network that has made the most aggressive schedule changes. First they canceled a ton of shows, including two shows from their main man Jerry Bruckheimer, and some long-running shows whose ratings weren’t terrible, like Gary Unmarried, Ghost Whisperer and The New Adventures of Old Christine. (The only cancellation I’m sad about is Old Christine, a perfectly solid, enjoyable second-tier show that would have gotten up to 100 episodes if it hadn’t been for the 2007-8 Writers’ Strike. ABC might pick it up, and it’s just as good as their other “big lady” shows, Cougar Town and The Middle — but it might be an awkward fit on a mostly single-camera lineup.) And they’ve made some equally aggressive moves with their established shows, most notably their decision to launch a comedy block on Thursdays by moving The Big Bang Theory there, followed by William Shatner’s [Censored] My Dad Says.

The move of Bang makes some sense, not just because it would help the network if it proved able to anchor its own night but because the time slot is ripe for the plucking: it’s up against Bones, Community, and a new ABC show with a generic title (“My Generation”), and can probably beat them. Putting Big Bang against Community is bad news for the latter show’s attempt to find a foothold, but that’s TV tradition: it’s like Fred Silverman putting the loud, catchphrase-friendly Good Times up against ABC’s then-new, gentle single-camera comedy Happy Days to crush it in its second season. Whether Community will respond to the competition by having Abed jump garbage cans on a motorcycle remains to be seen, but we can assume that there will be some in-jokes about the characters’ hatred of nerds who hang out with a token hot blonde. That could even be a Britta story.

Anywho, back to the scheduling decisions: it seems weird for a sedate, successful network — one that trades on the idea of comforting familiarity and lack of risk — to make so many changes. There are at least two good reasons why it isn’t. One is the obvious one: a network that has more hits can afford to cancel middling performers. Two, the network brass is probably trying to avoid being caught flat-footed when things change, or some of their shows burn out unexpectedly, or their competitors come up with more hits. The cautionary tale is NBC, which depended too much on its established hits, made few real shake-ups after their run of good decisions in the early-to-mid-’90s, and found itself desperately trying to hang on to a few aging hits. CBS’s new lineup is really no different than last year’s — they’ve replaced the canceled shows with virtually identical new ones — but but the feeling that they are introducing new stuff, shaking things up, making moves, can help contribute to the perception that they’re not resting on their laurels. Bill James’ Law of Competitive Balance, that winners regress (because they don’t make changes) while losers get better (because they make changes) applies here, except that when you’re a network executive, your job is to make the changes needed to stay on top, without really changing much of anything.

Oh, and the ability of Rules of Engagement to survive is pretty damned amazing, don’t you think? The show is now going into its fifth season even though it has never had a full season. Ever. The longest season it’s ever had was 15 episodes (though that was strike-shortened); otherwise it always comes back at midseason for 13 episodes. It’s not a good show at all, but it’s somehow managed to accidentally bring a cable-season model to network television, simply by being just successful enough to avoid being canceled outright.

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