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CBS: Sexy? Maybe not. But No. 1 in the season ratings.

May 12, 2009 |  6:14 pm

As the networks get ready to roll out their fall schedules next week in New York, rival executives would be well-advised to take a close look at CBS’ performance this season.

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With less than 10 days left in the traditional September-to-May TV calendar, CBS has earned bragging rights as the only big broadcaster to improve its performance this season compared with last. For the sixth time in the last seven years, the network is No. 1 in total viewers, averaging 11.7 million for a gain of 12%, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. In the ad-friendly demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, CBS, running No. 2 to Fox, is up 3%; its rivals are all flat or down.

Most noteworthy is that CBS achieved this feat not on the back of a massive hit reality show, a la Fox’s “American Idol” or ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” but rather with an established lineup of comedies and crime dramas such as “Two and a Half Men” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” – the type of programs that some critics have been dissing for years as too staid and risk-averse. CBS also delivered the season’s only new breakout hit in the crime drama “The Mentalist.”

The message seems to be that while scripted network shows may never recapture their glory days of the 1980s and '90s, they still retain plenty of appeal with ordinary viewers.  Under the right circumstances, they can even be a growth industry.

Of course, there are plenty of asterisks to CBS’ ratings uptick this season. As rivals point out, because it is so dependent on scripted series, CBS was hit especially hard by the writers strike that ended in February 2008. So it benefits this year in comparison with an abnormally low period.

Also, the CBS audience is among the oldest in TV, with a median age of 54, as opposed to 44 for Fox. And the “CSI” and “Survivor” franchises – both network staples for years -- have logged some of their lowest-ever ratings this season.

But given the audience erosion that continues to afflict virtually the entire media, those caveats count as mere details. The point is that CBS is defying the trends and building an audience at a time when nearly everyone else is headed in the opposite direction.

Take NBC. The network deserves credit for slowing a ratings plunge that has left it in fourth place after dominating its peers earlier this decade. NBC is flat this season in adults 18 to 49, for example. But much of the credit goes to the Super Bowl, which continues to set ratings records no matter which network carries it. Without the game, NBC would have slipped another 7% among young adults.

Or look at Fox, which has suffered a 14% dip. True, some of that loss stems from not carrying the Super Bowl this year, as it did last season. But much of it is because of ratings declines for “Idol,” which has carried Fox to No. 1 status but has probably peaked.

CBS executives have watched with dismay as “Idol” has taken command of the dial the last few seasons. But now their network is beginning to reap the rewards of a schedule filled with dependable scripted series.

--Scott Collins

Photos: CBS.  Left to right: Simon Baker in "The Mentalist." Charlie Sheen, Angus T. Jones, and Jon Cryer in "Two and a Half Men." Laurence Fishburne in "CSI."

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