July 21, 2008

CBS Talks Departures

Who's in and who's out at CBS? Executives of the Tiffany Network aimed to set the record straight on that question at the annual gathering of television critics in Los Angeles on July 18. Katie Couric, the much hyped -- and more recently, much maligned -- anchor of the network's evening news broadcast isn't leaving any time soon, despite rumors to the contrary. But CBS (CBS) made it official that another of its leading lights, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation star William Petersen, will be leaving the long-running, popular forensics show that's kept CBS atop the ratings charts for many of the last several years. Petersen has portrayed the brainy, brooding Gil Grissom since the show began eight seasons ago.

It's fairly normal for stars to tire of their roles, and the 55-year-old Petersen is no exception. Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, says the star and executive producer of the show will be leaving after 10 episodes this season to "go off and do a play." She quickly added that Petersen is "incredibly dedicated and supportive of the show" and that he's likely to show up again in episodes.

Serial Newcomer Still, the departure of a mainstay comes as unwelcome news to a show already slipping in the ratings. CSI, once the network juggernaut, finished last season as the industry's fifth-rated show, with its 18.1 million average viewers nearly 2 million fewer than the year before. Not surprisingly, CBS's overall ratings are also down by 16% from the year before, although it's still second overall to News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox.

How will CBS keep those microscope-wielding sleuths from slipping further in the ratings? CSI plans to introduce a new character with some DNA malformations that give him the same inner makeup as a serial killer. No, really. The media in attendance didn't get it, and Tassler was barely able to explain it. But it seems that the new lead for CSI, who hasn't been cast yet, will be a doctor with "an interesting genetic profile that many times serial killers have," she said. "This gentleman knows this about himself and is in this journey," Tassler added.

Confused yet? You have to think that the CBS folks are smart enough to make this all work, and the good news is that they left last season with a cliffhanger that Tassler says will help the show get off to a great start. [Team member Sara Slide, played by Jorja Fox, is clinging to life after being abducted by a killer]. And Petersen will stick around along enough to keep up the suspense so that the newcomer doctor with the bad DNA can fit into the cast. Ah, the head swims.

The Couric Question While that cliffhanger is getting sorted out, what about the embattled Couric? The former Today show perkmeister and fellow CBS newshounds Jeff Greenfield and Bob Schieffer, anchor of Face the Nation, beamed their presentation into L.A. from Studio 47, where Couric reads us the news nightly. The subject matter was to be the coming Presidential campaign, but of course, the first question was whether Couric's less-than-scintillating 6 p.m. ratings performance might have her headed out the door. "Glad you got right to that," Couric deadpanned, looking a tad pained.

Couric didn't exactly say she's in this for the long haul. The media, she explained, are more "fascinated by things along these lines than anyone else in the real world." For now, "I spend every day really focused on doing the best job I can, enjoying my colleagues, coming up with new and creative ideas for how we can make the CBS Evenings News better," she said.

Her boss, CBS News President Sean McManus, was more direct about speculation that Couric would be leaving the show "very soon.""I can say, and I have said, that's not true," McManus said. No doubt feeling emboldened, Couric ventured out as well: "Yeah, I can echo that. We have no plans to part company any time soon."

So, what's any time soon mean? How about January, maybe right after the next President takes office? Sounds about right, especially if Couric's ratings continue to slide, putting her further and further behind Brian Williams, her counterpart at General Electric's (GE) NBC, and Charlie Gibson over at Disney's (DIS) ABC. That would be about the time Petersen is collecting his medical bag and heading off the CSI set. One can only hope Couric's replacement doesn't have some sort of DNA disorder, too.