No Black Eye for CBS

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After airing a bloody mixed martial arts card and a show about couple-swapping within one week in primetime, it's probably safe to say the Tiffany Network as we know it is dead. And if I'm CBS, I'd be celebrating with a nice wake.

After it aired Saturday Night Fights on May 31, the network got ripped by some critics, who invoked the names of Paley, Murrow and Cronkite as they eulogized the network. But with all due respect, most of the young viewers network television is so desperately trying to rediscover have no idea who that trio is. And like its network brethren, CBS must evolve to survive.

Last year, the network tried to push the “buzz” factor and talk up shows about vampires and, well, couple-swapping. After that didn't work, it talked this year about getting back to the basics of strong dramas and comedies.

The best formula is probably somewhere in the middle. And the network is smartly figuring out it has to put its head down and make good shows, but also have enough tricks up its sleeve to get new (read: younger) fans to try it out.

So while Saturday Night Fights wasn't a very good production, the main event did a 4.1 rating in the male 18-34 demo. And it wasn't the 60 Minutes audience.

“Whether it is a sport or not, you can debate,” says CBS sports chief Sean McManus. “However, it is programming that attracts an awful lot of young males, and if that continues, it will remain a viable television property.”

If you haven't seen it, MMA has been called “human cockfighting.” But through increased rules, it has exploded into a gigantic television property on pay-per-view and cable.

After my future second wife Gina Carano (who is also an American Gladiator) won her bout on the undercard, CBS's main event featured a giant fighter called Kimbo Slice. While his real name is Kevin Ferguson, I can report he is no relation to CBS's Craig Ferguson, though they are clearly dead ringers for each other.

Slice made his name in backyard brawls carried on YouTube. And you thought the networks weren't serious about revamping the development pipeline.

Anyway, the main event featured Slice against some guy who honestly had the most disgusting cauliflower ear you've ever seen, meaning it was puffed up like some cartoon character. Slice won the bout not long after he punched said ear and popped it open like a zit on my high school yearbook photo.

Whether or not it was the most grotesque pimple-popping impersonation since John Belushi in Animal House, a lot of non-traditional CBS viewers were tuned in.

Not every affiliate aired it live. Some apparently aired a Children's Miracle Network telethon instead. I'm going to guess they didn't run the fights right after the telethon. I don't know a ton about audience flow, but I'm thinking that isn't it.

Now the live show itself kind of stunk. MMA hard-core fans will tell you they were minor league fighters, and even CBS knows the show was way too long and boring at times. Next time, CBS may want to consider taping it the night before and editing it.

But Saturday Night Fights may be why there was far less negative hype than expected around CBS's debut last Thursday of Swingtown, which was first introduced at the upfronts a year ago. After human cockfighting, suddenly a little wife-swapping doesn't look so bad.

But the gimmicks are wasted if CBS can't find some new hits, in or out of its sweet spot. And actually, The Mentalist, a crime drama coming out next fall, is right in the CBS wheelhouse and features an engaging Simon Baker. Or as my lovely wife puts it, “I wish he was on Swingtown and I lived next door.”

Indeed. Tiffany Network, rest in peace.

To listen to a podcast on this week's issue of B&C magazine, click here.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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