A Full-Court Press by CBS

Fresh off his network’s strong showing in the February sweeps, a confident CBS Television president Leslie Moonves met with media buyers and advertisers last week and took some potshots at his Big Three competitors, NBC and ABC.

At CBS’ annual pre-upfront development session in New York City’s Ed Sullivan Theater, with his boss, Viacom president/COO Mel Karmazin, looking on from the front row, Moonves asked buyers rhetorically where they would rather advertise to reach elusive young male viewers–on NBC’s ratings-challenged XFL and NBA telecasts, or on CBS’ NFL and NCAA college basketball tourney coverage.

Pointing out that on March 8 CBS topped NBC with regular programming on Thursday night among viewers 18-49 for the first time since the advent of the people meter audience measuring system, Moonves derided NBC for its on-air promos last week that urged viewers to watch the Peacock on Thursday nights because CBS had moved Survivor: The Australian Outback to Wednesdays for two weeks to make way for the NCAA games.

Turning his sights on ABC, Moonves noted that the median age of CBS’ viewers has gotten a year younger this season, while ABC’s audience has aged by three years. “I look forward to hearing ABC’s spiel about the value of older demographics,” Moonves quipped.

Moonves also suggested that, unlike his competitors, CBS next season will bring back as many as “four or five” of the seven new shows the network introduced last fall. “We won’t have many holes to fill,” CBS’ prime-time chief crowed.

Despite Moonves’ bluster, CBS could have as much as four hours of new programming on the schedule this fall. And if the network decides to scrap its Wednesday-night movie, which has performed poorly against NBC’s The West Wing and Law & Order, it could have six hours to fill.

If writers and actors go on strike this summer, the development slate Moonves unveiled last week will have to be put on hold, replaced by re-turning shows, reality programming and newsmagazines. But apart from a possible strike, judging from last week’s presentation CBS has about five comedies and half a dozen dramas that will be strong contenders for spots on its 2001-2002 schedule.

One project touted by Moonves is The Second Act, a new drama from John Wells, producer of NBC’s ER, Third Watch and The West Wing. The pilot, starring James Cromwell as a three-term senator who loses his re-election bid and returns home to his three daughters, was written by ER executive producer Lydia Woodward.

In another potential swipe at NBC, Moonves is leaning toward adding former Saturday Night Live cast member Cheri Oteri to the CBS lineup in Loomis, a new comedy about a local TV news reporter.

Other projects singled out by Moonves from CBS’ lengthy development list include: Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson’s drama Hudson County, starring Linda Fiorentino and Rob Morrow as a married couple who dabble in crime investigations; film director Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm) in his U.S. TV debut with The Agency, a drama about the inner workings of the CIA; the Richard Dreyfuss vehicle The Education of Max Bickford, about a college professor facing a mid-life crisis; and JAG producer Don Bellesario’s First Monday, a look at the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court, starring Joe Mantegna and James Garner.

Buyers generally gave CBS’ pilot lineup positive reviews, cautioning that the projects are still just proposals. Moonves did not show film clips from any of the projects. “It’s all premature, of course, but there were some very interesting concepts,” said Bob Igiel, president of the broadcast division of The Media Edge. “Assuming some make the schedule, they could become excellent shows.” Igiel cited First Monday as a show that could fit in fairly seamlessly with the network’s current schedule. “CBS is building from strength, so it will be easier to fill in their schedule,” Igiel added.

Despite CBS’ prime-time successes this season, many of the network’s owned-and-operated TV stations around the country are still under-performers in their markets. Continued ratings shortfalls at the O&O’s has fueled speculation among network insiders that station group president John Severino may be on the way out. Severino, who in addition to overseeing the station group runs CBS’ ratings-challenged Los Angeles O&O KCBS, has denied recent reports that he will leave. Severino, who took over the station group in July 1999, did not return calls for comment. A CBS representative declined to comment.

“No one is confirming it, but that’s all anyone is talking about,” an executive at a competing station in L.A. said last week.

CBS’ WCBS in New York, KCBS in Los Angeles, WBBM in Chicago, KYW in Philadelphia and WBZ in Boston all lag behind their NBC and ABC competitors by considerable margins. Among the few bright spots on CBS’ O&O roster is WFOR in Miami, a solid ratings performer.

The network is said to be considering returning administration of the stations unit to New York, where CBS and parent Viacom are headquartered, from L.A., where Severino is based.

–with Jeremy Murphy