LOS ANGELES — Les Moonves, the guy who turned CBS from status as TV's old age home to one of the most successful networks on television, says there's a big reason why his shows are racking up viewers even as critics seem not to notice.
Traditional TV works. Especially on CBS.
"Tradition has worked...all our businesses are working," said Moonves, the only president and CEO of a major television corporation who seems to enjoy pressing the flesh with critics at their semi-annual party, holding court at a reception in the Beverly Hilton Hotel Sunday night.
But doesn't the lack of edgy programming keep the network from getting critical praise and Emmy nominations? "I don't think our network's not doing edgy," added Moonves, who nevertheless had trouble naming a cutting edge, Emmy-bait show on his air beyond The Good Wife. "Cutting edge is the wrong word. Commercially viable quality is the better word."
CBS made that statement with the guest list at its party Sunday, featuring stars from all its television platforms, including CBS, Showtime, the CW network and beyond.
At one end of the reception, a mini-Friends reunion was underway, as Web Therapy star Lisa Kudrow hugged former co-star Matt LeBlanc, now leading Showtime's comedy Episodes. Both were briefly joined by Aisha Tyler, a pal who once appeared regularly on Friends who now serves as a co-anchor on CBS' daytime show, The Talk.
Elsewhere, Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis were talking up their new Mob-meets-a-new school cowboy show Vegas (though Chiklis also spent some time touting his progressive rock band, MCB). Charlie's Angels co-star Lucy Liu took questions on her role as a new school Dr. Watson on the network's Sherlock Holmes series Elementary, while British actress and Black Swan alum Janet Montgomery explained how she watched Mira Sorvino and the 1988 film Working Girl to figure her note-perfect New Jersey accent for the new show Made in Jersey.
CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler explained the influx of talent by noting that the film industry has become a more narrow field, focusing on internationally-friendly blockbusters and super small films, making television a more attractive medium for increasing numbers of film stars and producers — even on a network with the most traditional values of them all.
That may be why CBS only had four new shows to tout at this year's TV Critics Association summer press tour, proudly touting its status as the only network that will stick with the traditional model of debuting its new shows when the 2012-13 TV season officially starts in the week of Sept. 24.
Critics use CBS as a synonym for the kind of formulaic, yet-profitable programming exemplified by shows such as NCIS and CSI — predictable, easy to replicate shows featuring a crime of the week and close-ended stories that can score well in repeat broadcasts.
But as complex dramas such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men soak up the attention from critics and Emmy love, there is a sense here that CBS is stretching its brand a bit — developing the story of Las Vegas's transformation into a gambling mecca with Quaid, Chiklis and a concept developed by Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi.
"When a producer comes through our doors, they know the bar is high," Tassler said. "They know it's competitive. They know it's hard to get on the schedule. But when they do, they are given the best chance for success."