LOS ANGELES -- So what if a network became No. 1 in the ratings and nobody cared?
ABC executives tried to set up just such a scenario when they addressed the TV critics assembled here a few days ago, claiming that no advertising is sold on the overall household ratings -- the numbers used to determine network rankings -- but instead using demographic data -- the age and sex of the audience, which advertisers prefer to be young and female.
Indeed, ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger said that the whole ratings race was done just for ego purposes. This came during a press conference in which he was down on the whole network business, claiming one network would go out of business soon and that the survivors might stop programming some hours in prime time, letting their local stations have the time.
There might have been a method to such mad statements because Iger and crew knew that the critics would next meet people from CBS, whose executives were rashly predicting a top spot in the Neilsen ratings for the coming season.
"I do think we'll be No. 1," said CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky. "The series on all three networks should be in about a dead heat, and I think sports should put us over."
By sports he meant the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, all coming up on CBS this next season.
CBS president Howard Stringer disagreed that there is no financial advantage to being the No. 1 network.
"If we happen to be No. 1, there's a premium in that," Stringer said.
"The programs in the top 20 get a 15 to 20 percent premium," David Poltrack, CBS' head of research, explained. "Leadership does pay a significant premium. Anyone who
tells you that the No. 1 network does not get a higher share of the advertising market than they do of the audience is kidding you.
"The negotiation with the advertisers is based on these young demographics, but they take into consideration socio-economic profile, quality of shows, environment, adult composition, a lot of other things. It's much more complex than just saying the only thing that counts are young demos."
CBS' schedule looks like an odd one to vie for the top spot. It sports three movie nights -- Sunday, Tuesday and Saturday. Other than Sunday, these movies usually provide reliable ratings, but not the spectacular ones needed for top-dog status. Indeed, three movies is usually an indication that a network couldn't come up with enough good new shows to fill its schedule.
But Sagansky said this was as planned. "We are in good shape on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, we're looking to make a move on Wednesday or Friday.
"Look, when I was at NBC, we had one good night on Tuesday, but getting promotions on those shows helped us launch Thursday.
"We want to focus our promotion on the new series on Wednesday and Friday and if we had another night of new series somewhere, it would just be too much to promote effectively."
On Wednesdays, CBS is bringing Redd Foxx back to prime time in "Royal Family" as a grandfather who starts raising kids again when his daughter moves back in.
Friday is an entire new night of programming, but CBS has high hopes for two comedies, "Princesses" -- Twiggy as one of three young women sharing a fancy New York apartment -- and "Brooklyn Bridge" -- a nostalgic, autobiographical show from Gary David Goldberg about growing up in the '50s in that New York borough.
Those are followed by the return of Carol Burnett in an hourlong variety format.
"I think it will work because it's what 'In Living Color' does every week," Sagansky said of Burnett's show. "I agree that old-fashioned, Ed Sullivan, proscenium stage variety is dead, but this is comedy/variety with skits and a repertory company, what people expect from Carol Burnett.
"It's the type of thing that worked for 11 or 12 years her other time around. There's no reason it won't work now."
Not only were CBS types bullish on becoming No. 1, they were also high on the network business, despite Iger's predictions.
Stringer admitted that he was a bit down about the state of the industry when he took the job three years ago.
"I've gone from blithering idiot to cheerful oaf in this period," he said. "I'm feeling better about our network than in any other time in the past three years.
"If one of us goes out of business, it's not because of a lack of demand for quality network programming, it's because the network messed up."
And Sagansky said that CBS had no plans to give any prime time period to the local affiliates, but he wouldn't mind at all if ABC did that.
"It would make it a lot easier for us to find an audience and develop some hits," he said.