Cover Story

Save CBS

Sorry series and jinxed news shows mean a troubled network -- Mark Harris issues a rallying cry for its rescue

First things first: CBS is not dead. Ailing, flailing, perhaps even failing, but still (subject to sudden changes of fortune, takeover bids, and the weekly Nielsen ratings) alive. However, if words of praise for the broadcasting giant have taken on a eulogistic ring in recent months, the reason is obvious. The house that Paley built may be standing, but viewers by the millions have decided they'd rather spend the night somewhere else. And things may get worse before they get better. There's no question that CBS deserves to be rescued from its present fate. What's astonishing is that it needs to be rescued.

Even now, CBS' schedule has a few bright spots. Murphy Brown, the treasure of its Monday lineup, has become television's smartest and most engagingly acted comedy series. With many years of life left, it could become the linchpin of a revitalized roster of sitcoms, always one of the network's strongest suits. The critically esteemed, innovative crime drama Wiseguy has a core of devoted fans; Designing Women, in its fourth season, has never been more popular; and newcomers Major Dad and City show promise. The news division, despite problems, continues to provide the ever-renewable 60 Minutes and the up-and-coming 48 Hours. But if CBS is to survive, most of what's left has to go. Hasta la vista, Paradise. You're shot, J.R. War's over, Tour of Duty. Right now, at least a third of CBS' schedule is past its prime, and another third never had a prime.

So far, here's what the CBS of the '90s has offered: Grand Slam. Max Monroe: Loose Cannon. His & Hers. Island Son. The People Next Door. A Peaceable Kingdom. Desperate measures that reeked of cynicism and defeat the moment they were conceived. Of course, CBS doesn't have a monopoly on rotten shows — just on rotten shows that nobody wants to watch.

At the top of the prime-time ratings just five years ago, CBS is likely to end this season in third place, achieving the lowest Nielsen rating for any network in 36 years. During an average hour of prime time this season, only 12 percent of households with TVs have been tuned to CBS programs — fewer than NBC, fewer than ABC, and sometimes fewer than Fox.

The network's precipitous decline is all the more startling because CBS has had so much further to fall than its competitors. For television's entire first generation, when NBC was an also-ran and ABC was laughed off as the Almost Broadcasting Company, CBS defined television, with shows that lodged themselves in the national consciousness and then went to rerun heaven for an eternal reign. In the 1950s, that meant Lucy and Ricky, Burns and Allen, Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Alfred Hitchcock, Perry Mason, and Lassie. Sublime or ridiculous, these were the series around which Americans arranged their leisure time. A decade later, some new faces — Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett — joined the schedule and helped to consolidate CBS' hold on the viewing public.

Even in 1970, when the network briefly slipped to second after 15 years at the top, it anticipated the needs of a new audience and began replacing its sagging rural sitcoms. Out went Green Acres and Hee Haw; in came M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, Kojak, The Waltons — a fabled lineup that brought CBS back to first place, pulled entertainment television into the modern age, and dominated the medium for much of the following decade. And in the '80s, Dallas legitimized prime-time serial storytelling with an impact still felt in series from L.A. Law to The Wonder Years.

But Dallas, once America's most popular series, has become a dwindling relic, and CBS has lost its finger-on-the-pulse acuity, falling to second place in 1986 and then, in 1988, to third. This season, the network's attempts to revitalize its lineup were unnervingly wide of the mark. CBS tried to draw younger viewers into a schedule that included 10 new series. When the shows made their debuts, the network's lineup looked like a suicide mission, not a strategy. CBS' ''youth appeal'' schedule included Lindsay Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and William Shatner. Six months later, seven of the new shows are gone; of the remaining three, the most successful, Major Dad, ranks 40th out of 96 series. CBS' pessimism runs so deep that it seems to have conceded an entire night as lost, renewing its Saturday lineup of leftovers — Paradise, Tour of Duty, and Saturday Night with Connie Chung — for the entire season.

The network can find little cause for cheer on the rest of its schedule. A number of CBS' few successful shows — Murder, She Wrote; Knots Landing; Newhart; Dallas — are among its oldest; by 1991, they'll almost certainly cease production and leave the network with more gaping holes. CBS long has been unwilling to let its series end gracefully, squeezing one, two, or three more years out of exhausted concepts (remember the back-from-the-dead season of Magnum, P.I., or Dallas' season-long dream sequence?) Meanwhile, the development of new shows has been ignored. If the arthritic dud Falcon Crest had been put out of its misery a couple of years ago, CBS might be building a new Friday hit. As it is, Crest and series like it limp on until the last viewer departs. That kind of lazy programming exacts a steep price, and the network is about to pay it.

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