Cover Story

Save CBS: Advice from the Pros

Experts like Sally Jessy Raphael and Scot Butler offer some turnaround tips, and so do we

Sally Jessy Raphael
Talk-Show host
It's always so easy to sit back and be a so-called expert when someone else is in trouble. In fact, I think the only way to improve any situation is with consistancy and continuity. When you are trying something new, you've got to let it run and give it a chance for people to find it.

John Reidy
Media analyst, Drexel Burnham Lambert
Networks go through long periods of up, middle, and downs, and CBS certainly has had its downs. But things don't change overnight, and I think (entertainment division president) Jeff Sagansky might be the major breath of fresh air that's needed. He's a new spirit... a guy with some success. Who knows? He could be the next Grant Tinker

Donald P. Bellisario
Executive producer, ''Magnum, P.I.'' and ''Quantum Leap''
I don't know what happened to their programming — whether it deteriorated that much or NBC just got really hot. It's like a tidal wave once a network starts going down... Maybe they could have a 24-hour Sajak show or change their colors. No, it's really simple: Get back to the basics. Find a hot show, and a hot show gets you a hot night and then you capitalize on that change and momentum shifts. They'll be back. Especially since Jeff's there. I knew him when he first started and he was bright from the get-go.

Peter Boyer
Author; ''Who Killed CBS?''
I would start by going back in time and not making any of the decisions they've made in the last six years.

I suppose it would have been smart to hire Jane Pauley for their morning show. And what can you say about their prime-time programs? Invent better television — I don't know what else you can say. I would ask [CBS News president] David Burke does he ultimately plan ever to bring anything to the table other than the silence he has imposed on CBS news, or is the re-creation-stuffed Saturday night with Connie Chung it?

I would sell Disney — that would fix it. I have the feeling that if you asked CBS employees, out of every 10, 9 would give you that answer.

David Halberstam
Author, ''The Powers That Be''
I think it's very simple. CBS News was the jewel of the organization; it gave the network its legitimacy. They hired the best people and then left them alone. They had a sense of the primacy of news. That's not true anymore. ABC kills them among serious news junkies because of Nightline... Viewers know that if there's a serious news story that's where they'll find an intelligent discussion that night.

CBS has to understand that to make money you have to spend money, and you spend money to get talent and then you leave them alone. Doing something well in news is a cumulative thing based on a value system; it's not about marketing.

In the old days, you'd turn to CBS because they had better people and they'd spend more time on the story. Not anymore.

Scot Butler
Media director, Fallon McElligott advertising agency
It would help if their comedy shows were funny and their dramas were dramatic.

It's good they got someone new to head programming because it seemed like the old guy (Kim Le Masters) had incredibly bad taste. I don't like to separate being an advertiser from being a consumer and at last year's prime-time previews I kept thinking, ''This stuff is horrible.''

If there was a well-produced music-oriented program that was in a nontraditional format, I think that would do well. As for personnel Dan Rather is hard to take he seems so affected now. Bring back Walter temporarily and reestablish the news. Ted Koppel has become the Edward R. Murrow of the '80s, and CBS has clearly lost that.

As a sports fan, I'd like to see them get rid of Brent Musburger. It may not show in the ratings because people will watch the events anyway, but he doesn't carry credibility.

Dennis McAlpine
Senior vice president and media analyst, Oppenheimer & Co.
Their major problem for the last several years has been the 8 (o'clock slot) at night. They started out very weak against the competition. Major Dad was the only thing that semi-worked. If you look at the number of flops in there, that's where they have to spend a lot of concentration. The product that is working is aging. Murder, She Wrote is good for another year by the sounds of it, Falcon Crest is just about gone, Dallas has another one-year commitment, so they've got to replace some of those. They have a fairly major realignment to do without much to build on.

Where you've got everybody running movies on Sunday night, why not put some series in and go for the whole thing? You've got another year of Murder, She Wrote; you might as well develop something after it. Movies have no ongoing | value in developing an audience.

Barbara Corday
Former executive vice president of prime-time programming for CBS
I think I know better than most people how difficult the job is that Jeff has ahead of him. Having been there, I know how incredibly difficult his job will be. He's a very bright, talented guy, and I think he'll need to turn his talent to getting the best possible writers and producers to work for him.

The most important thing is to get talented people to come work for you. It will be a long, arduous process, like turning a cruise ship in the bay — enormously challenging and difficult — especially when you look at how difficult it is to get people to just sample something on your network. More people question whether you can turn a network around in this environment than whether Jeff is capable of it. If it can be done, I don't see any reason why he can't do it. — Reported by Melina Gerosa and Kate Meyers

EW's advice
Turn it into the kind of CBS we once knew. The best way to save CBS is a simple one: good shows. And that's what Jeff Sagansky, the new president of the network's entertainment division, will try to add to the CBS lineup. The network that once was home to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H is still capable of good programs: Murphy Brown, Wiseguy, Pee-wee's Playhouse. It just needs more of them. But if there isn't enough good programming and talent to spread over three networks, there are these alternatives:

Give it to Ted Turner and let him make it an all-news network. Turner's Cable News Network is carried by 8,700 cable systems reaching 51 million households. CBS reaches more than 90 million households. And Turner is on record as finding CBS attractive. News programming already does well on the over-the-air networks — consider the success of Today, Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, Nightline, and 20/20. Add in topical talk á la Donahue and Oprah and CBS-as-CNN is even more appealing. It works on radio. It works on cable. Why not all-news on big-network TV?

Turn it into an all-sports network ESPN delivers sports to 55 million households. And CBS already has increased its sports programming by acquiring broadcast rights to the 1992 Winter Olympics and major league baseball and retaining the rights to NCAA basketball tournaments (a seven-year, $1 billion deal). CBS just has to sign up a few more sports (college football, yes; tractor-pulls, no) and it's on its way to becoming a more powerful version of ESPN.

Make it the all-daytime all-day-long network Now that most adults work outside the home (including 57 percent of American women), who's around to watch soap operas and game shows when they're broadcast? Very few of us. And that's too bad; we miss Jill Abbott and Victor Newman of The Young and the Restless, and we'd love to play along with The Price Is Right. We could tape these shows, but who wants to program the VCR when there's a 7:15 bus to catch? What would you rather watch after a hard day at the office: Island Son or The Young and the Restless? This daytime-at-night strategy makes a lot of sense. CBS is No. 1 in this area, with Restless and The Guiding Light particularly strong.

Turn it into the 50-plus network. Don't laugh. We're semi-serious. The nation's graying, and CBS already attracts more older viewers than ABC and NBC. We say: Go with it, CBS. We are not a nation of Johnny Depps, Kirk Camerons, and Bart Simpsons. And boomers won't be thirtysomething forever. The day's going to come when watching William Conrad huff and puff through another Jake and the Fatman won't bother us a whit. Modern Maturity has the largest circulation of any U.S. magazine. A Modern Maturity network could be huge.

Turn it into the all-Beast network Ever since this magazine's debut, its editors have been besieged by fans of the recently departed CBS series Beauty and the Beast. They're so dedicated to bringing the program back that we'd like them to do a programming turn at CBS. Or would that be C-Beast-S? There could be talk shows with the Beast as host. Poetry-reading hours. Athletic competitions in which the Beast takes on, oh, Hulk Hogan or Buster Douglas. The Beast could replace Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes. And the entertainment series: Major Beast, Murphy Beast, Designing Beast, Wisebeast. Over to you, Beast brigade.

Turn it over to Murphy Brown and Co
We love Murphy Brown. It's one of our favorite shows. But we're willing to see it dismantled, for the good of CBS. Miles Silverberg would become the network's programming chief, and Jim Dial host of The Pat Sajak Show. Frank Fontana would replace Dan Rather. Corky Sherwood would assume the Connie Chung role on Saturday Night. And Murphy? Murphy would take over 60 Minutes.

Originally posted Mar 09, 1990 Published in issue #4 Mar 09, 1990 Order article reprints