It’s late January, time when the broadcast networks typically kick off pilot season with their first pilot orders targeting the upcoming fall. Not CBS, which will not be picking pilots in the traditional window; instead the network has five scripted series already on tap for next season and a potential Fire Country spinoff in the works.
There has been nothing typical about the past couple of years between the pandemic and the double Hollywood strike, which disrupted the TV development cycle. Still, while networks like ABC and Fox had signaled a move toward year-round development before the pandemic, CBS had stuck closely to tradition, so many thought the network would eventually revert to its old ways.
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That didn’t happen. In a major leadership change at CBS, Amy Reisenbach, the network’s head of current programming of 5.5 years, was named Entertainment President in November 2022. Just a couple of months later, CBS — which like the other broadcast networks had been gradually reducing pilot counts — ordered its fewest pilots ever during the 2023 pilot season, four, along with two development rooms for medical dramas Watson and The Pact targeted for the 2024-25 season.
That was the first indication of a shift in the network’s development strategy. A year later, CBS — believed to be for the first time ever — will not be ordering pilots this pilot season.
Some of that is a residual effect from the strikes — many new broadcast series intended for the 2023-24 season, including CBS’ drama Matlock, headlined by Kathy Bates, and comedy Poppa’s House, starring Damon Wayans and Damon Wayans Jr., are being delayed until next season. CBS also recently gave a straight-to-series order to Watson with Morris Chestnut set as the lead, and NCIS prequel NCIS: Origins, with a Georgie & Mandy Young Sheldon spinoff also finalizing a straight-to-series pickup.
Securing CBS’ new scripted series for next season nine months in advance is part of the network’s strategy for long-term development which Reisenbach and her boss, CBS President and CEO George Cheeks, have come up with, taking a page from the movie studios’ playbook of setting up their release schedules a year or more in advance. It replaces the traditional broadcast development cycle that essentially wipes the slate clean every May, with the networks starting from scratch.
The strategy would allow CBS to have scripted originals on the fall schedule even if there is an IATSE strike as I hear Matlock is expected to go into production in the spring and Poppa’s House in mid-summer.
In an interview with Deadline, Reisenbach, who briefly references the potential new work stoppage next summer, discusses the new development approach and what it means for the creative community (CBS is already starting to think about projects for 2025-26 and plans to order more development rooms soon).
Reisenbach would not elaborate on the Young Sheldon or Fire Country spinoffs which have not been officially ordered but she shared more details about the NCIS prequel about Young Gibbs.
She also addressed the upcoming ending of Blue Bloods, Young Sheldon, S.W.A.T. and Bob Hearts Abishola, and the factors that go into cancellation decisions.
Reisenbach was open about the financial challenges of broadcast as it grapples with declining linear ratings as the network faces a potentially tough four-series renewal negotiation with NBCUniversal.
She touted CBS shows’ role as “creative engines” that have long lives on streaming but was also candid about the need for the industry to come together and “level set some of the costs at the starting gate” so broadcast series can run for seven seasons and beyond in the future.
Reaffirming CBS’ commitment to the 10 PM hour, Reisenbach also spoke of NCIS’ long-term prospects and teased more NCIS: Sydney. She also shared her expectations for the launch of the network’s scripted lineup that kicks off with the premiere of Tracker, headlined by This Is Us alum Justin Hartley, after the Super Bowl on Feb. 11.
DEADLINE: CBS is way ahead of schedule this year with five scripted series already set for next season, and a Fire Country episode that could spawn a spinoff in production. What is the strategy behind having the new 2024-25 lineup firmed up so early?
REISENBACH: It’s a couple of factors. Obviously, Matlock and Poppa’s House we had intended to premiere earlier. Those two shows we rolled over to next season, that felt like the right move coming out of those strikes. But when I took over about a year and a few months ago, I was incredibly fortunate to have inherited — and obviously it’s a schedule that I have worked very closely on for the last five and a half years — such a strong schedule that we’re so proud of and we’ve had such a great track record of launching really successful shows the last five or so years, if not longer. [CBS has delivered the most watched new series for the past six seasons with FBI, FBI: Most Wanted, The Equalizer, Ghosts, Fire Country and NCIS: Sydney]
George and I sat down and we said, how do we take the schedule and how do we optimize it? How do we think more long-term? How do we think more strategically and how do we create more flexibility in the types of ways we develop, so that we can utilize all of our departments so much better? I want to give you a couple of examples.
We very much felt that we had a schedule that only had a couple places that had needs going into 23-24. And so we developed Matlock and Elsbeth. But we had this great script, Watson. I think in previous years we might have just passed but we said, let’s open up a development room, let’s look at that material and let’s target this much earlier than we’ve ever had before, for 24-25. And that’s what we did. And we had great material from Craig Sweeny. It allowed us to go out and woo Morris Chestnut who we’re just over the moon about. We’re already putting that writers room together, we are going to start production with four to five scripts banked, marketing is going to have a much longer ramp in order to ramp up their plan. Same for scheduling. It’s going to make us much more efficient in production. So we just felt like there were so many benefits by trying to develop a little bit more long-term versus season to season as we have in the past.
Tracker is another perfect example of that. That pilot came in I think Week 1 or Week 2 of me taking over. It was such a fantastic pilot, and we said okay, we’re not going to put it on for this season. Maybe in previous years, we might have said okay, we got a pilot in November, let’s put it on in spring. We said let’s hold this for the following season.
We dropped the first spots for Tracker in March Madness last spring. That’s a long ramp-up marketing in a way that we’ve not done before. And we’re going to be doing the same thing with Poppa’s House come March, which I’m really excited about, we’re going to already be kicking off that campaign as well. Obviously we’ll be promoting Elsbeth, which will be coming on air after March Madness as well.
Being so far ahead is allowing us to — the same way movie studios drop their teaser trailer or the teaser for their teaser trailer — it’s allowing us to function more like that. We’re already talking about 25-26; we’ve never been able to think that far ahead. And it’s really because the building blocks were there to begin with.
DEADLINE: When you were promoting Tracker during March Madness last spring, was it already earmarked for a Super Bowl premiere?
REISENBACH: We were promoting it as coming next season at that point, we had not necessarily decided about Super Bowl yet. But once we started to look at the pieces we had in place with Matlock and Elsbeth — and, obviously this was pre-strike and in the first days of the WGA strike — when we unveiled our schedule in May, we announced Tracker is coming on after the Super Bowl because we just felt like it was the perfect show. Justin’s been on after the Super Bowl before with This Is Us [in 2018]. It has such broad appeal both for men and women. I don’t think there’s a more perfect show to come on right after that game. And we’ve got the game of our dreams with the 49ers and the Chiefs.
The best part about this launch is, we’re not even just looking at is launching Tracker but we’re launching the entire schedule. Tracker‘s just the tip of the iceberg for the onslaught of new content that is coming that week. Every promo you’ve seen has been all about premiere launch, and it’s for the whole week. And again, by coming up with this plan early, it allowed us to be so much more cohesive and strategic with our marketing. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of our promos recently, but the music we’re using, I think we really elevated our promos this year, and I think they’re really making people look up from their phones and say, what is on my TV right now.
AFC this past weekend, they had a fantastic promo with Mumford and Sons for Tracker. I think you really get invested in the show when you see a promo like that. And if we hadn’t had the lead time, I don’t think marketing could have put together promos that really make you take notice.
DEADLINE: What is your expectation for the launch of your scripted shows and the impact of a potentially Taylor Swift-boosted Super Bowl on it? Also, how did you pull it off, being the only network to debut two new drama series this season that didn’t have more than the pilots before the strike?
REISENBACH: That’s really a testament to the writers and the crews and everybody really; as soon as the strikes were over, they launched right into their rooms. We had been prepping all during the strikes, we made grid after a grid of when can these shows get back on air, how many episodes are we going to be able to get with them?
And then, I think one of the things that has really been beneficial in the past year is the cohesiveness and transparency and communication among the different departments, with scheduling and marketing and current and myself sitting down and saying, what is the most effective, biggest way that we can make the most noise in bringing back these shows. And it was, let’s use the Super Bowl, let’s use it to launch Tracker, let’s use it to launch the whole week and let’s line up all of the shows and everybody.
It’s not easy. Yes, there are certain shows that had to accelerate post but every show across the board was all in and said, we are here, we want to bring back this audience. I’m such a broadcast cheerleader. So, many props to NBC for getting their shows on. I was thrilled to see how Law & Order and Chicago came back. It really shows that that broadcast audiences is there, the audience is excited and they’re ready for these shows to come back. We can feel it, and our expectation is we’re going have a great week.
DEADLINE: Going back to development, the pandemic forced broadcast networks to make more straight-to-series orders, which you did with The Equalizer and Clarice, and CBS has embraced that since. You will have no pilots this season. How was the decision made on that?
REISENBACH: I think it was a decision based on the pieces that we had in place. We had put the development room for Watson into place prior to the strike so we had a couple pieces of material already that we had gotten our eyes on. And then as soon as the strikes were over, they put out some more and we were able to go out and look for cast and a director. All the pieces came together, and that was a perfect example of, let’s try to develop things in a little bit of a non-traditional way for CBS, and let’s see how it goes. It’s been really successful for us, and we’ll continue to look for the best path for the right project.
The word I often use is we want our development to be a bit more bespoke moving forward, which is, certain shows are going to go to pilot and certain shows will go straight to series, certain shows may open a development room and then we’ll go to series. We want to be flexible.
The idea of year-round development is not new, we didn’t coined it but we are more so than ever committed to it because we think it allows us to pick up scripts and put them on the path we think is the right path from them, not based on the calendar year but based on what we think is best for that project and best for what we see as the future of our schedule.
DEADLINE: Is there a genre distinction in the model — are comedies more likely to go to pilot and dramas more likely to do straight to series or development rooms?
REISENBACH: It’s really project to project. I would not say that it’s one or the other, it really depends on the pieces and the auspices, who’s involved.
DEADLINE: There will be no pilots, but could you be commissioning more development rooms in the next couple of months?
REISENBACH: My goal is to open one to two more rooms by spring into summer at some point, it depends on if we have the right projects and we feel good about them. I’m not committing to that now, but hopefully we will be able to get another room or two up and running and targeted for more long-term as well as continuously doing more more normal development. It’s just being as flexible as possible.
DEADLINE: And the projects opening rooms could be drama or comedy?
REISENBACH: They could be either, for sure.
DEADLINE: Of your existing rooms, is The Pact still active?
REISENBACH: Absolutely, The Pact is very much active. We brought on Ayanna Floyd who’s co-writing with Marcus Dalzine. That was always one where we felt like we wanted to go back and do some re-imagining and rethinking on that pilot script before we opened the room because it’s really important that we have that script in good shape first, and we had some broader ideas on the project itself that we wanted to tackle before we opened up the room.
The Pact is very much a priority for us. And yes, that’s a perfect example of something that we’re targeting more for 25-26 at this point.
DEADLINE: As far as 24-25, are the five picked-up series all the new scripted shows or can we expect any wildcard to join them outside of the potential Fire Country spinoff starring Morena Baccarin?
REISENBACH: We’re still getting all of our pieces in place. It’s a little too soon until we premiere, and we do have some scripts in the hopper that we’re really excited about. As of now, I’m not anticipating additional pickups for next year. But there’s always a chance. Again, that goes to we want to be flexible. We want to be open minded. We don’t want to be held to the traditional way.
DEADLINE: Is there a chance for any of the five (potentially six) new series to be held for 2025-26?
REISENBACH: Look, never say never, who knows what happens this summer, so and we’re ready to pivot as necessary. But as of now, the plan is that they will all be launched at some point during next season.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that you and George Cheeks drew possible inspiration for CBS’ long-term development plan from the movie studios’ release strategy. What has been the response from the TV creative community? Are people happy that now they’re developing for further down the road; you said that you are currently looking at 2025-26. How will that impact the way you buy things, when you buy them and what path you put them on?
REISENBACH: Yes, we’re looking at 25-26. I think the community has really appreciated the honesty and transparency we’ve had about that. So Help Me Todd was a project that came out of a very traditional development cycle. It was pitched over the summer, they did an outline and then a script and then we shot it on that cycle. We couldn’t be more proud of that show, I can’t wait for you to see the first couple of episodes, they’re fantastic.
That type of process works, but also doing a development room works. And sometimes you get a spec script and that’s fantastic, and it’s packaged up and you say, we got to go straight to series on this. And I think what’s been great is people appreciate that they’re not held to, I have to get the script in by January 31 In order to be considered. It’s such a tough environment out there, there are so many shows out there which is fantastic for the viewer. But it means that we have to work that much harder and raise the quality of our shows so much more in order to make an impact and get noticed. We take that on and we love that challenge and I think so does everybody else.
DEADLINE: We talked about the impact of the pandemic, which wiped out the 2020 pilot season. The WGA strike did pretty much the same to the 2023-24 development cycle because by the time strike was over, there wasn’t enough time to buy and develop scripts. Is this the final blow to the traditional broadcast cycle, the point of no return? Or is it something that has already been going on, so the timing is more of a coincidence?
REISENBACH: I lean more towards the coincidence. Our goal is to continue to do the normal development cycle. We want to have pitches coming all year round but I’m sure that there will be an influx of pitches coming in the summer. We will buy pitches and put them into development and again, we will look at it project by project and see what makes the most sense.
And we’re still committed to unscripted as well, that still remains a priority. We have The Summit coming, which we’re really excited about. I’ve loved watching how well Price Is Right At Night has done, and obviously we’re thrilled with the performance of the 90-minute Survivor and Race this year too. That’s something we’re looking forward to doing more of in the future.
DEADLINE: Lessons from the fall. You just listed several unscripted series that aired then. CBS’ didn’t have scripted originals at your disposal but made strategic moves by adding NCIS: Sydney as well as Yellowstone and SEAL Team repeats that largely paid off. What did you learn from their performance and did the idea to do more NCIS with Origins come out of the success of Sydney on the schedule?
REISENBACH: I’ll just start with NCIS: Origins. No, that was in development prior to that. And Sydney had obviously been in the works for quite a while.
I think we learned that we can experiment. I’ll just reference Survivor and Race. We actually had decided to turn those into 90-90 min prior to the strikes, but it just showed that we can look at things a little differently than we have in the past, trying to be a little non-traditional when it makes sense.
I think it shows the power of CBS. My big lesson is, when we put something on that speaks to our audience, they’re going to show up and watch.
And, while they didn’t have the full schedule of support around them the way they normally would, they still worked and had great audience support for both NCIS: Sydney and Yellowstone. We’re thrilled with how NCIS: Sydney did. It’s not just a win for CBS but it’s really a win for all of Paramount, for Paramount+, for CBS Studios and Paramount International. Same with Yellowstone, I think it just speaks to that the company is working across all different parts right now as much as possible, and we’re all looking for those wins together.
DEADLINE: Obviously this came out of necessity, but is similar windowing of shows from other parts of the company something that you could use to supplement your schedule going forward?
REISENBACH: If the right project comes up, absolutely. We’re thrilled with the success of NCIS: Sydney. I think it’s been wonderful to have these franchise extensions; they’re each its own unique property. NCIS: Origins is really different than any of the other NCIS‘s; it makes me feel so old to say it’s period when it’s set in the 90s, kill me now, right?
It’s a little edgier and grittier than previous NCIS‘s, it’s got a serialized element of it that we’re really excited about. And whereas I would say NCIS: Sydney too really had its own identity, it was very uniquely Australian and told stories that can only be told in Australia, so I feel like they’re both opportunities to gain new audiences while also being true to the DNA and loyal fan base of those shows.
DEADLINE: Can you tease something about more NCIS: Sydney on CBS?
REISENBACH: I feel really positive and there will be news to come soon.
DEADLINE: In terms of NCIS, how long do you think the mothership can go? It is the longest-running CBS scripted series at 20 seasons.
REISENBACH: I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. It’s a fantastic cast with a fantastic writing staff that’s been there a really long time. They’re just as reenergized today as they were as when I started on the show in Season 8 [as current executive].
So, as long as they want to keep it going, we’re thrilled to be on the NCIS train. Gary [Cole] and Wilmer [Valderrama] and Sean [Murray] and Katrina [Law], all of them, they love doing the show. So we hope to continue on for quite a while.
DEADLINE: The upcoming launch must be a bit bittersweet because several big, long-running CBS shows, including Blue Bloods, Young Sheldon and S.W.A.T, are ending. How do you make these decisions? Are they largely financial or are you examining it from different angles? Has your background as a current executive been helpful to look at the trajectory of the series?
REISENBACH: I’ll speak as a TV fan first, which is I hate when we don’t get to give shows proper endings. And I think that also speaks to our feeling of, let’s try to plan long-term as much as we can. It is a function of having a really strong schedule that we have to refresh and that means in order to refresh, shows have to eventually end.
Our goal is to always end them respectfully so that the audience gets the ending that they absolutely deserve because they’ve put in the time and they love these characters, as well as the cast and crews and writers.
DEADLINE: This is not limited to CBS but how much do financial constraints play a role in how you do development in terms of even buying fewer pitches, and possibly ending shows sooner? We saw what happened to Bob Hearts Abishola, which is ending with Season 5 after a major budget cut. How much do you have to keep an eye on that?
REISENBACH: Financial aspects are always going to be a part of the equation but it’s not the whole equation. There are so many different factors that go into when and why a show will end but at the end of the day, our goal is to make sure that they get as much of a runway as possible.
We knew for quite a while that Bob was going to be ending and we had conversations with Chuck [Lorre] where he really appreciated that he had the time. He knew in advance that the show was going to end so he and the team could write to it. That’s the kind of ending that when shows end we want to give them.
DEADLINE: You spoke of giving departing shows a long runway. Should we assume that no more established, long-running CBS series will be ending this season since we haven’t heard of others and they need to have time to prepare their ending?
REISENBACH: I’m not ready to talk about that yet, to be honest. I’d like to get through our launch before we start looking at that.
DEADLINE: In today’s environment, can shows that premiere today last for 7-10 seasons and beyond?
REISENBACH: I absolutely believe they can, but if we want to play the long game here, the industry needs to level-set some of the costs at the starting gate when we put the pieces of a show together. Series are more expensive than ever to produce and thus they get too expensive too quickly to sustain long runs.
DEADLINE: You are facing a major renegotiation with NBCUniversal as multi-season renewals for the FBI franchise and The Equalizer are coming up this year. Speaking again about the economics and how things change quickly, what do you expect? Is it harder in today’s environment to try to make those deals?
REISENBACH: Everything is challenging in today’s environment, but we always look at that challenge and we find our way through it. But it would be naive to say that these things aren’t always challenging.
DEADLINE: There have been on- and off- conversations about the future of the 10 PM hour on broadcast, with NBC exploring an exit a year or so ago. Since you’re doing long-term plans, do they factor in originals, mostly dramas, at 10 o’clock on CBS?
REISENBACH: We’re 100% committed to the 10 o’clock hour, it’s not going anywhere. So it’s factoring in that, yes. We’ll always be looking for where we potentially have needs but we love 10 o’clock and we’re committed to it.
DEADLINE: Four of your five new series for next season are talent-driven, getting a green light with a star already attached, and all but Poppa’s House are based on IP. Talk about the importance of IP and getting those packages in place?
REISENBACH: It’s funny because yes, technically they’re all IP but I don’t look at Matlock and Watson and even Elsbeth — they’re IP, but in the loosest sense of the word, they’re super unique takes. Watson is a great example. Yes, we are using the world of Sherlock per se, but this is a version of Watson you’ve never seen before, they’re creating their own mythology. Matlock, we’re using that title for sure, but it’s completely… we keep joking, we’re calling it a meta reimagining, not sure we’ve fully landed on that yet.
Yes, peak TV may be coming down but it’s still a crowded environment and we will use every tool we have at our disposal to make sure that we are breaking out of the crowded TV field and if that means using IP that will help us with that and give us that leg up how we’re marketing it, we’re definitely going to do that. Having more elements in place and packaging these things up is also fantastic and wanting to give marketing as many tools as possible to get these shows out there. Every show is a risk so having these elements in place, it does up our chances of success.
DEADLINE: Age is just a number, and CBS has consistently had success with shows headlined by stars in their 60s and 70s. Tom Selleck’s Blue Bloods is ending but Matlock with Kathy Bates is joining other shows you have on the schedule with older leads. Talk about CBS continuing to defy convention of what a leading man or woman on television should be like?
REISENBACH: For us, it is all about the content. When [writer] Jennie Snyder Urman turned in Matlock, she was really clear she wanted to hire somebody who was of a certain age because that was how she wrote the character. And we said, this is a fantastic script, absolutely. Honestly, when we read the script, we all thought Kathy Bates would kill this.
I don’t think we ever think about it in terms of oh, we need to cast somebody younger. We want to cast the right person for the right role. When a script is that good, you don’t even think about the age and when you have somebody like Kathy Bates coming on, we’re just thrilled and we’re looking forward to having her on our air.
DEADLINE: What was the most surprising part of the job a year and a couple months in?
REISENBACH: Honestly the most surprising part has been how unsurprised I am at how fantastic the team at CBS is. Everybody has been here for so long. When you’re head of current, my favorite part about current is the fact that you work with everybody. But it is different when you’re working with them in this job, and to see everybody rise to the occasion through what was a difficult year because we had to pivot and be flexible and change our plans a couple times. I’m surprised by how unsurprised I am at how fantastic everyone has been, rolling with the punches, if you will.
Our goal is to continue to launch new hit shows just as we have the past few years and we feel really, really bullish about what’s to come, we have really high expectations for our premiere week. Not only are the shows premiering well on broadcast, but they’re driving content on streaming. I love the stories that come out about how well NCIS has been doing on Netflix, I love how well the shows are doing on Paramount+, and I think viewers are finding them on Pluto as well.
We’re thrilled when people are watching our shows no matter where they find them, we’re happy to be a content engine.
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