CBS Upfront: Sales Pitch or Victory Lap?

Les is more as Moonves screens new drama series

CBS on Wednesday kicked off its 2012-13 upfront presentation with what amounted to a victory lap, as executives went to novel (and sometimes gonzo) efforts to celebrate the network’s ratings prowess.

Playing to a packed house at Carnegie Hall, CBS sales president Jo Ann Ross took the stage behind 2 Broke Girls actresses Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, both of whom were decked out in their waitress duds. (Never one to play a supporting role, Ross sported a bedazzled version of the yellow-and-red server’s uniform.)

After a brief sales pitch that incorporated every conceivable restaurant pun, Ross wrapped her bit by promising clients that they can always expect a tasty return on their investment in CBS.

“We don’t deliver—we over-deliver,” Ross joked. “It’s always my pleasure to serve you, even in uniform.”

Ross gave way to a lyrical turn by soprano Danielle de Niese, who delivered an aria from an opera we’re not even going to pretend to recognize. The singer was then joined by rapper/NCIS: Los Angeles star LL Cool J in what can only be described as a hip-hopera mashup.

The loopy tone continued as CEO Corp. CEO Les Moonves rolled up to offer “mad respect to my main man, LL Cool J,” before telling the audience that he had reservations about even bothering to host yet another upfront presentation this year.

“We talked about scrapping the damn thing and heading straight to Lincoln Center for cocktails,” Moonves said. “But I didn’t want to lose my security deposit. Carnegie Hall ain’t cheap!”

Well, it’s good to be king. Not only does the network eclipse its rivals in overall deliveries, but with an advantage of nearly 3 million viewers over its closest competitor, CBS is on track to end the season with its widest margin of victory since 1989. And if its prime time success rate weren’t enough—19 legacy series will return in the fall—CBS in February will air Super Bowl XLVII.

As for the meat of the show, CBS screened a handful of teasers for its new dramas, including Elementary, Vegas and Made in Jersey

A contemporary gloss on the Sherlock Holmes universe, Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller as a detective with a flair for deductive reasoning and unconventional investigative techniques. (In that respect, Miller's Holmes is evocative of Simon Baker’s Patrick Jane.) Exiled to Manhattan from his native London, Holmes is paired up with an addiction counselor, Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).

Aptly enough, Elementary will replace The Mentalist in the Thursday 10 p.m. time slot, as Baker and the rest of the CBI gang move to the post-Good Wife slot on Sunday night.

Upfront attendees responded warmly to Made in Jersey, a character-driven drama starring Janet Montgomery as a street-smart young woman named Martina Garretti who works her way up the ladder at white-shoe Manhattan law firm. (In one establishing scene, Montgomery appears to simultaneously channel Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci in the film My Cousin Vinny.) Created by former Covert Affairs writer Dana Calvo and executive produced by Jamie Tarses, Made in Jersey also stars Kyle MacLachlan and Erin Cummings.

CBS aims for prestige with Vegas, a period piece set in ‘60s-era Sin City. Based on the life of Sheriff Ralph Lamb, Vegas was created by Nick Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino), and stars Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis and Carrie-Anne Moss. While period pieces seem to have a hard time finding an audience on broadcast TV—Pan Am and The Playboy Club are just the latest in a string of historical dramas that failed to live up to the hype—Vegas appears to be that rarest of animals, a network series for adults.

According to Networked Insights lead analyst Sean Reckwerdt, CBS’s decision to deviate from its procedural-heavy model could prove to be a winner. “While there is not nearly the same amount of conversation as there are for the all the other networks, the Vegas conversation trends very positively,” Reckwerdt said, adding that Chiklis and Quaid are particularly popular with viewers.

Of course, all of this is mere prelude to the main event, which occurs when Ross and her sales team sit down with media buyers to begin writing deals for the 2012-13 season. Moonves has already indicated that he’d be satisfied with nothing short of double-digit CPM increases, but buyers are saying the market won’t bear that sort of self-indulgence. Stay tuned…

For a full analysis of CBS’s fall schedule, click here.

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