During last year’s CBS upfront presentation, Stephen Colbert was little more than a footnote. The network instead gave the 2016 spotlight to his late-night companion, James Corden, who received not one but two extravagant opening production numbers. Meanwhile, Colbert was shoehorned in partway through, delivering a tepid routine that fell flat with the Carnegie Hall audience.
One year later, everything has changed. A reinvigorated Late Show has beaten The Tonight Show in total viewers for 15 weeks straight, and Colbert was once again the center of attention—and greeted enthusiastically by buyers—at this year’s upfront event on Wednesday afternoon. The host stole the show with a song-and-dance number, which started on video and ended up onstage, and a lengthy, hilarious monologue about his success over the past year.
“It’s been a great year for the Late Show. I could not have done it without the visionary, a legend of television, who made the Late Show what it is. Thank you, Donald Trump!” said Colbert.
The host referenced the controversy over his recent joke about Trump, and the president’s reaction to it, noting, “The president recently had some harsh things to say about me. He said my language is not appropriate for the Late Show because kids are watching. Who says only old people watch CBS?”
CBS Corp. CEO and chairman Leslie Moonves hit the nail on the head: “If you think that I love Stephen more now just because he’s No. 1…you’re right!” He reflected on how far Colbert has come since last year’s upfront, telling the audience, “one year ago, who would have thought Stephen Colbert would be winning late-night on CBS, and Bill O’Reilly would be doing a podcast in his underwear?”
Moonves repeated many of the same points about CBS’ resiliency that he made to reporters earlier in the day, claiming that the network is as involved with audience targeting metrics as any competitor. “That old idea of just one coveted demo is so dated. You know, like American Idol,” said Moonves, who revealed that morning that the network had considered bidding on the revival that ultimately went to ABC, but “the economics just made absolutely no sense for us.”
Ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross, who entered by playing along onstage with Late Show house band Jon Batiste and Stay Human (yet another nod to Colbert’s comeback), made the pitch for CBS’ lengthy winning streak in total viewers. “In a world of alternate facts…this simple truth holds: more people watch CBS than any other network,” she said.
Like several of her counterparts this week, Ross played up the advantage of “real people watching your commercials and hit shows with zero fraud, all from a source that you can trust.” She showed an ad for a cruise line that ran next to a YouTube news story about a sinking ship and vowed, “At CBS, we do not let this kind of ship happen to you!”
The event gave a spotlight to the CBS This Morning team, which is closing the gap with Today, and CBS Sports, introducing new lead NFL analyst Tony Romo, who said he wants to pull the curtain back on quarterbacks in the league.
CBS Interactive president and COO Marc DeBevoise hit the upfront stage for the first time to talk about the CBS All Access streaming service. He announced that the first season of the highly-anticipated Star Trek: Discovery has been increased to 15 episodes, and the streaming service will also air an aftershow, Talking Trek.
CBS aired the first trailer for the new series, which will debut in the fall and is set 10 years before the original Star Trek. It’s clear that even though the series is on All Access and not CBS, they didn’t skimp on the production budget.
Corden, last year’s darling, also made an impression this year, coming out on stage dressed like a Vulcan after the Star Trek trailer and declaring, “I’m perfect for Star Trek. I also come from a distant place where there’s no life: 12:37 a.m. on CBS.”
After noting a week of upfronts that touted revivals like Will & Grace, American Idol and Roseanne, Corden told the crowd of buyers, “this is like your own personal Groundhog Day. There must be an easier way to do this! Can’t we just play the tape from 2002?” He also revealed that he’ll once again host the Grammys next year.
Finally, it was time to see CBS’ new shows. As always, the trailers seemed to be more acutely on-brand than those from any other network.
The most positive response seemed to come from Young Sheldon, the Big Bang Theory prequel in which Jim Parsons’ character from the hit sitcom is just 9, and about to start high school in Texas. “If you love the dulcet tones of my voice, and wish I could be heard but not seen, this is your lucky upfront day!” said Parsons.
Buyers also reacted warmly to new drama S.W.A.T., starring Criminal Minds vet Shemar Moore, David Boreanaz drama Navy Seals and the Everybody Loves Raymond-esque comedy 9JKL.
CBS did seem to wander from its comfort zone a bit with new comedy Me, Myself and I. That show looks at different points of one man’s life during a 50-year span, with both Bobby Moynihan and John Larroquette playing him.
CBS’ other new drama, Wisdom of the Crowd, starring Jeremy Piven, combines elements of a pair of canceled dramas from this past season, APB and Pure Genius:
Kelly Kahl, senior evp of CBS Primetime, made his upfront debut to pinch hit for CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller, who is on medical leave through the end of May and “on the road to a full recovery,” said Moonves. Kahl said that two-thirds of the viewing for CBS shows is live, which is “more than any other network” and gives them a “huge leg up in getting millions of viewers to sample our shows” via their scheduling.