Upfront Report: CBS

The CBS Upfront, aka the Leslie Moonves Variety Hour, began at 3:15 on Wednesday with a live band striking up at Carnegie Hall. A PSA appeared on the giant screen up front, asking everyone to silence their cell phones, Trios, two-way pagers, etc.

Anyway, the announcer told the packed house, “everybody who’s anybody is already here.”

Such as Katie Couric! “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the new CBS Evening News anchor would ask from the center of the main stage. “Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.”

It’s Upfront Week, ladies and germs! The posturing, the spinning, the kvelling over bad shows that are likely already cancelled–all that is the excuse to assemble en masse and tell inside jokes.

But first, the business. JoAnn Ross, the head of ad sales for CBS, started things off by explaining this would be a very different upfront season, because “there are now five, not six, networks.”

That may come as news to Peter Chernin, Roger Ailes and the rest of the Fox executives who had spent Tuesday morning presenting the fall schedule for My Network TV, the sixth network, which News Corp created when the WB and UPN merged earlier this year.

Ross then did a joke about platform agnosticism, involving video feed from a webcam trained on a platter of shrimp cocktail at Tavern on the Green. Technology is big. “We are branching out into what we call the ‘outernet,'” Ross said.

Moonves came out next to accentuate the positive–“This is our fourth consecutive year as the most-watched network…you’re in good hands with CBS…think CBS first…”–then moved speedily on to shtick. The giant screen behind him broadcast a “CBS Evening News Special Report,” in which Bob Schieffer broke the “news” that Moonves would not be digitally inserted into a humorous short film for this year’s presentation, as he has been, to great comedic effect, in years past.

“You’re lucky you got that one,” Moonves said after the film, which featured a montage of past digital shorts. “The other choice was me and Bob Schieffer in our version of Brokeback Mountain. We flipped a coin to see who was gonna do the Heath Ledger part.”

Next, quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning chatted onstage with Phil Simms and Jim Nantz, as a way of emphasizing that CBS has the Super Bowl next year. “Thanks guys!” Mr. Moonves said as they walked offstage. “Boy, those are four tall gentiles.”

More of this, then CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler came out to talk details. The CBS schedule is so full of successful shows, including six “freshman” programs the network renewed from last season, that she had very little of actual substance to say. CBS picked up four shows–one comedy it will add to its Monday night comedy block and three dramas, one for Tuesday, one for Wednesday and one for Thursday.

Tassler took breaks between presenting nights of the schedule to liven the mood. After Tuesday, she did a bit about chasing demographics, suggesting, among other things, that CBS was planning a telenovela version of its hit crime procedural, called “CSI-AY-AY”). After Wednesday, Mariah Carey came out and sang.

Noticably absent were jokes about Zucker, who used to have a healthy rivalry with Moonves, until the former lost. It was not long ago that CBS was a miserly old network at the bottom of the ratings heap, with no pop stars singing at its upfront and nothing especially to sing about. But on Wednesday, Moonves and his team didn’t seem to have the energy to tweak their rival networks. As the cast of Jersey Boys had sung in the upfront presentation’s opening number, to the tune of Big Girls Don’t Cry, “CBS is where you’ll find the hits.”

Moonves and his public relations chief Gil Schwartz led an exodus to the afterparty at Tavern on the Green. A CBS photographer tried to take a picture of the merry band marching through Central Park. Smiling, Mr. Schwartz flipped the photographer the bird.