CBS decides to leave the pursuit of youth to other networks

July 20, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- It's not going to be hard to distinguish CBS from the other networks this fall. In a year when NBC, ABC and Fox are all narrowing their focus and going after young viewers like never before, CBS is sticking with a broad-based approach anchored around shows aimed at baby boomers from big-name producers, like Diane English and Susan Bloodworth -Thomason.

Jeff Sagansky, the president of CBS Entertainment, thinks the networks have never before had such clearly different strategies.

During CBS' portion of the fall preview press tour here during the weekend, Sagansky said, "When you look at the other three networks, this whole press tour must be a parade of 22-year-old kids in Guess jeans coming through here. But we've decided to go in a different direction. We've decided what we're looking for is to be a broadcaster. I think the good shows . . . appeal to everyone."

Sagansky and other CBS executives sounded that theme so often and took so many potshots at the flock of youth-oriented twentysomething shows on the other networks they sounded defensive. And that's surprising since CBS finished in first place last year and has so many hit shows back that it looks like a cinch to repeat.

"Who decided that at the age of 50 you stop buying deodorant and toothpaste and sit in the corner gumming Pablum?" Sagansky demanded. "It just disturbs me. I think [the other networks] bought into the everybody-wants-to-be-hip-and-hop, and they want to be hot and on the cutting edge, whatever that means. I think they've bought into the conventional wisdom that the ad agencies and their sales departments tell them."

CBS does have a few shows with twentysomething appeal. One of them is "Angel Street" (previously titled 'Polish Hill"), the show Barry Levinson threatened with legal action because he said it included material plagiarized from Sun reporter David Simon's "Homicide." Producer John Wells repeatedly declined to answer questions about Levinson's allegations, saying a settlement reached with the director precluded his discussing the matter. "Angel Street" stars Robin Givens as a homicide detective.

But "Angel Street" and the other young shows were only a side street, as CBS showcased its series and specials for baby

boomers and older viewers.

The centerpiece involved press conferences with English and Bloodworth-Thomason and the baby-boomer casts of their new shows, "Love and War" and "Hearts Afire," respectively.

"Love and War" features Jay Thomas, from "Murphy Brown," and Susan Dey, from "L.A. Law," as a couple of opposites romantically attracted to each other. English, who created "Murphy Brown," signed off that hit show at the end of last season to work full time on "Love and War."

Her company still produces "Murphy Brown," and much of the "Love and War" press conference was spent on questions aimed at getting English to say how "Murphy Brown" would respond in its season opener to Vice President Dan Quayle's attack on what he sees as the show's lack of family values.

English declined specifics, saying, "I know what it is [going to be]. . . But let's just say it's going to be a helluva lead-in for my new show." "Love and War" follows "Murphy Brown" in the Monday night line-up.

The session to promote "Hearts Afire," starring John Ritter and Markie Post, was also dominated by talk of politics. Bloodworth-Thomason is a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton and produced the video biography of Clinton shown Thursday at the Democratic National Convention. Both Post and Ritter are working on Clinton's behalf, Bloodworth-Thomason said.

"Hearts Afire," a romantic comedy set in Washington, is also about middle-aged baby-boomer romance. Ritter plays the top aide to a Southern senator. Post plays a journalist who comes to work for the senator as his press secretary. Bloodworth-Thomason said the political satire in "Hearts Afire" -- as well as her other shows, "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade" -- will be "generic rather than specific," until after the November election.

The older skew of CBS was evident in virtually every session. Stan Rogow, who made "Shannon's Deal," has a new show called "Middle Ages." It is pure fortysomething angst with middle-aged guys losing their jobs in corporate takeovers and daydreaming endlessly about girls they loved in high school.

There's a new series for Bob Newhart, titled, not surprisingly "Bob." There's a new series for Betty White and Estelle Getty, "The Golden Palace." There's a miniseries on Frank Sinatra. There's another "Classic TV Weekend" on the way -- this one will feature a 25th anniversary for Carol Burnett's show and an "Andy Griffith Reunion Special."

"We're not going to be young," Sagansky said. "We're going to be good."

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