Is The Answer To CBS’s Ratings Challenges A Shared Universe?

When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the other comic book geniuses were in their prime in the 1960s and 1970s, they were responsible for creating and popularizing a staggering number of now-iconic characters. The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, Spiderman, Thor, Daredevil and on and on. But for all of that ingenuity, their best decision might have been the concept of a “shared universe.” This is the idea that each of these characters lived on Earth at the same time and could potentially interact with each other if it made creative sense. This “shared universe” was the underpinning of the Marvel world and it’s helped make the hit Marvel movies of the past decade or so seem even more vital and electric. Allowing characters to interact unexpectedly in this way brings context and buzz to every project and it’s a truly revolutionary idea. But could it work in the world of television?

So called “cross-over” episodes have a long history on television, but they tend to be of limited ambition. Because writers are navigating multiple networks and studios, most episodes that attempt a “shared universe” approach limit themselves to a brief appearance from a sister television series. So a character or two from NCIS is working a case based in New Orleans, so there are a few scenes of the NCIS and NCIS: NOLA casts on camera at the same time. Yes, it’s a cute idea, but it’s also a very disposable approach.

But would it be possible to attempt a more ambitious approach? Is there a way to weave a number of disparate shows into a shared television universe that doesn’t just make sense creatively, but adds something substantial to each program? And that’s really the only reason to even consider a shared television universe. Does it improve the bottom line of the network and make their programming more attractive to viewers and advertisers.

I’m going to ignore the business challenges of convincing competing studios to agree to the idea. It’s a complex argument and I could easily expend a few thousand words parsing out all the possibilities. So I’ll leave that for a follow-up piece and stick to the network side of the discussion. Is there a network with a wide enough potential universe to make this idea practical?

A shared universe likely works best with dramas and you need a number of them to make the idea workable. So that limits the discussion to the broadcast networks and when you look at the possibilities, CBS is the only practical choice. Yes, the CW has a lot of dramas, but several of them already share the DC universe. And it’s difficult to see how you can cobble together a shared story out of a universe that includes SUPERNATURAL and JANE THE VIRGIN. Both ABC and NBC have a reasonable number of dramas, but neither one possesses the requisite number of dramas to make a potential shared universe practical. And regardless, in both cases, their current dramas don’t share enough tonal and creative commonalities to make a shared universe practical. As for FOX, they’re having enough problems trying to keep dramas on the air without having to wrestle with the prospects of creating a shared universe that includes EMPIRE and SLEEPY HOLLOW,

So we come to CBS and at first glance, the network seems like the perfect scaffolding onto which you can build a vibrant shared universe. Now CBS executives will rightfully argue that they’re doing okay right now, especially when compared to the fortunes of their broadcast competitors. And while that’s true, Vulture’s Joe Adalian has a great counterpoint, which makes the shared universe idea a perfect fit for the network:

The bigger headache for CBS is that the audience erosion other networks have been experiencing for years is now plaguing the Eye, too. Every scripted show on the network’s Sunday through Thursday lineup is down by double digits among adults under 50 (even the heretofore gravity-defying The Big Bang Theory). This wouldn’t be so bad if the CBS development factory were churning out a couple of new hits every year, as it once did reliably for years. But that’s just not happening. While Supergirl and last year’s Scorpion have helped CBS stay competitive on Mondays, neither is a game-changer.

So a successful shared universe could go a long way towards solving some of these problems. It allows the network a myriad of ways to push viewers between their veteran shows and new dramas. It makes it easier to launch and promote limited-run series that are tied into the shared universe. It increases the number of cross platform promotional opportunities and opens up ideas such as creating a series for CBS All Access that ties into the broadcast shared universe.

There are a lot factors to consider when building these connections, but a couple of overarching guidelines make sense. While the “event” shared universe stunts will get the most press, what makes the idea work are the small things. The unexpected cameos and asides that spark the “What the…!” tweets and the fan threads on social media. In a universe where Live +3 is a viewer measurement standard, creating moments that convince people to track down the episode and watch it is what helps make this idea profitable. It’s not quite live programming, but it’s a way to drive interest for even otherwise routine episode.

It’s also important to find the right balance for these shared moments. In the beginning, the network will want to err on the side of doing too few moments. You can always increase the frequency, but it’s tough to back off without appearing as if it’s an idea that is failing. It’s also a good idea to try and surprise viewers as much as possible with the moments, which means you don’t hype every little shared universe moment. Let viewers find them and let that surprise be the method of promotion.

As for which shows should be included in this shared universe, here’s a rundown of the current (and some future) CBS dramas that could conceivably be stitched into a common universe. Once again, I’m not factoring studio considerations into this list or attempting to predict which shows might be open to the idea. This is simply a rundown of what MIGHT work and not a prediction of what might happen.

American Gothic

Blue Bloods

Code Black

Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders

Elementary

Hawaii Five-0

Limitless

NCIS

NCIS: Los Angeles

NCIS: New Orleans

Rush Hour

Scorpion

While I think this is a fascinating intellectual exercise, I can’t imagine that CBS executives would be willing to give it a try. It’s a massive creative gamble at a time when swinging for the fences can be dangerous. And I suspect the folks at the network consider themselves well positioned for the future without having to negotiate such a complex plan.

Still, I think it would not just work but breathe a new life into the broadcast television business. A shared universe is network branding at a cosmic level and in today’s crowded world of programming, that is a very good thing.