Gripe as we might about CBS's endlessly bland primetime offerings, those "smug motherf--kers" (in the words of Jimmy Kimmel) have legitimate reason to celebrate: the network has officially topped the prized 18-49 demographic for the 2012-2013 broadcast season, making it impossible for jerks like us to say that young people don't watch the No. 1 rated network on television. Thing is, CBS is only technically winning: It turns out that ratings in that demographic are down across the board.
As James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly points out, being at the top of the Nielsen ratings heap is nothing new for CBS. They've been first in total viewers for 10 of the past 11 seasons—they just hadn't won the 18-49 demo that advertisers covet in 21 years. Fox had held that demographic for eight years. But CBS needn't be so cocky (even though they probably will be): It was mostly Fox's 22 percent drop in the demo that contributed to CBS's conquest. CBS did actually drop in the demo, according to Nielsen, but only by 3 percent. NBC dropped by four and ABC by eight. Fox's losses were just overwhelming. (Though still kept them in second place.) Michael O'Connell of The Hollywood Reporter explains that "American Idol's significant losses in the spring and a disappointing relaunch for The X Factor in the fall held the network back." Will Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio help up the ante as judges on that latter offering? We're not so sure.
Nobody knows exactly what Idol can do about a comeback next season, but Fox is trying really hard to draw viewers in with limited-run series like the return of 24, bro-comedies starring the likes of Seth Green and Andy Samberg, and a new J.J. Abrams show—all unveiled during TV upfronts last week, during which Fox chief Kevin Reilly admitted "this was not our best year." CBS, meanwhile, has the last season of How I Met Your Mother, plus yet another Chuck Lorre show, and Robin Williams's return to television in a turn opposite Buffy. Fox's slate looks ambitious, but if they fail, that's good news for CBS, which still has a bunch of established hits on its hands.
Indeed, one of the easiest CBS insults has always been that only old people watch CBS. Now that's not exactly the case, even if old people are still holding down the fort. And that doesn't mean we have to think that The Big Bang Theory and NCIS are cool.