UPFRONT 2: Programming Report – CBS Keeps Its Eye On the Prize Demo

By Matthew Flamm

‘This is not your father’s CBS,’ Les Moonves says. ‘We have to get younger,’ he says. But will the kids buy it?In his mission to revive the Tiffany network, Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment for the last two years, seems to have had one card up his sleeve all along: It helps to come from behind. With CBS up from third to second place in terms of households and a close second to NBC in the ratings sweeps last month, its May 22 fall lineup presentation amid the plush splendor of New York’s Carnegie Hall felt like nothing less than a victory celebration. Suddenly a 9.6 overall share didn’t seem too shabby, NBC’s iron grip on first place didn’t seem all that important, and the fact that CBS still places last in the crucial 18-49 demographic seemed just a minor obstacle.

‘Step one is complete,’ the gravel-voiced Moonves told the approximately 2,000 ad buyers and ad execs in the audience. ‘We brought people back to CBS, and I guarantee CBS will be younger this fall.’

It should be: The network known for its aging, rural viewership has gone markedly urban and younger–albeit in a gradual, CBS sort of way. Saturday and Sunday nights remain as they were, reassuring the network’s core audience that for better (60 Minutes, Touched by an Angel) or worse (Walker, Texas Ranger), some things never change. Of the seven new prime-time shows the network will be putting on the air, several will target the familiar CBS demographic of 25-54-year-olds–‘but more urban than we’ve had there,’ Moonves told reporters the morning of the presentation.

On Monday night, for instance, the new situation comedy George & Leo, starring Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch as mismatched fathers-in-law, will be followed at 10 o’clock by the new cop drama Brooklyn South from Steven Bochco. A harder-hitting NYPD Blue–the 10-minute segment shown at the presentation had a body count to rival the Gulf War’s–Bochco’s latest has been described by Moonves as ‘the best new drama in years,’ a show so strong he could let it displace Chicago Hope. (The solidly performing hospital drama, which presumably will hold its audience, will now face off on Wednesdays against NBC’s Law and Order.)

Together with Michael Hayes, which brings David Caruso (of NYPD Blue fame) back to television as an ex-cop-turned federal prosecutor, on Tuesday at 9; Dellaventura, starring Danny Aiello (‘The Equalizer with cojones,’ according to Moonves), on Tuesday at 10; and an as-yet-unnamed Bryant Gumbel newsmagazine on Wednesday at 9, the new shows may be setting the stage for bigger changes in the future.

‘We do have to get younger,’ Moonves told reporters, and then he described the new lineup as ‘a slight shift in what was the old CBS. We’re holding onto our core audience and should do better in our share of the demographic.’

That shift is most pronounced on Fridays, which CBS is hoping to turn into an ABC-style family comedy night. In fact, Family Matters, once a Friday-night hit on ABC, leads the schedule at 8 p.m., with Jaleel White returning as the hyper-nerd Steve Urkel.

That’s followed by Meego (Bronson Pinchot as an alien babysitter), which is followed by The Gregory Hines Show (Hines as a widowed dad), followed by Step by Step, a comedy starring Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers that has also been purloined from ABC’s T.G.I.F. lineup.

Though the shows skew younger, they’re still being pitched as quality productions, without the abrasive humor that sometimes appears in youth-oriented shows on other networks; that is, they shouldn’t offend the old folks.

On the other hand, observers point out, CBS still has a ways to go. ‘They’re trying to go younger on Friday, and it’s a good idea,’ says Peter Chrisanthopoulos, vice president of broadcasting and programming at Ogilvy & Mather. ‘But it’ll be difficult to execute because they don’t have other younger-skewing programming on the network to cross-promote it.’

Still, the new lineup is a long way from Central Park West, an expensive flop that marked the last time CBS tried to reach a younger audience. ‘These shows are all younger, they’re hipper, they’re different,’ Moonves said amid the crush of party-goers at Tavern on the Green following the presentation. ‘Brooklyn South. Bryant Gumbel. Gregory Hines. David Caruso. Remember the old campaign: This is not your father’s Oldsmobile? These are shows that our core audiences will like but at the same time will attract young, young people. These are the symbols of where we’re going.’

And as symbols, the new shows have already made their mark. Though the lineup announcement was overshadowed by the resignation of CBS chief executive Peter Lund and the installation of Mel Karmazin in a more powerful role at CBS, reaction to the programming moves in the investment and advertising communities has been favorable. ‘Les Moonves is continuing to generate a significantly broader-based programming and putting the building blocks in place to make CBS competitive with the other networks,’ says John Reidy, an entertainment analyst at Smith Barney.

Says Harold Vogel, an entertainment analyst at Cowen & Co., ‘I don’t know if (the lineup) is strong enough to overcome NBC, but I think it moves them in the right direction.’

Analysts and advertisers were particularly pleased with the variety in the CBS lineup. For instance, Michael Hayes on Tuesday and Bryant Gumbel’s newsmagazine on Wednesday both face off against comedies on ABC and NBC. And on Thursday night– ‘my least favorite night,’ joked Moonves–the new drama Diagnosis Murder will do its best against Seinfeld. Overall, its menu of sitcoms, dramas and three news programs contrasts with the heavy emphasis at the other networks on situation comedies. ‘While everybody else is going after the younger viewer, CBS seems to be (aiming at) a different target audience–while recognizing that they need to bring in younger viewers,’ says Betsy Frank, executive vice president at Zenith Media Services. ‘The network is clearly positioning itself in a way that would have been unheard of a year ago–as an up-and-coming network.’

‘They have a good counterprogramming strategy,’ says Steve Grubbs, executive vice president of national broadcast buying at BBDO. ‘On Tuesday, the whole world is programming sitcoms, and they’re programming male-oriented, action-adventure.’

For Moonves, who took over at CBS Entertainment following a highly successful tenure as president of Warner Bros. Television, the new prime-time lineup follows the series of moves he made last year to ‘stop the bleeding,’ as he likes to say. These included moving Touched by an Angel from Saturday to Sunday, and The Nanny from Monday to Wednesday, which in both cases resulted in significant ratings boosts. He also signed up Bill Cosby for his own series, which signaled that CBS was again interested in–and willing to pay for–major stars.

‘All of a sudden, we started to win,’ Moonves recalls. Cosby, which next season will add a 5-year-old neighbor to enhance the connection with family viewers, continues to be part of the strategy. ‘We feel that with Everybody Loves Raymond (Mondays at 8:30) and Cosby, we can get younger.’

There have been missteps along the way–like Ink, the highly touted sitcom starring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen that never got off the ground. And try as they might, officials at CBS have not had much luck convincing advertisers that 25-to-54-year-olds are actually a more worthy audience than the younger age group. But if ‘step one’–stopping the bleeding–has been successful, and the new fall lineup constitutes step two, then the next phase of the campaign can’t be far behind for the famously competitive Moonves.

‘We’re not interested in being No. 2,’ he told the crowd at Carnegie Hall. Eventually, he assured them, ‘quality is going to win out.’

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