Head of CBS rips reports of instability

TURNED ON IN L.A. -- FALL PREVIEW

July 20, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- CBS is not for sale.

That was the message repeated here yesterday from a testy Laurence Tisch, who said he would continue to run the network (( himself and make it the most profitable in broadcasting.

For all his effort at trying to spike reports of a network in turmoil, however, the 71-year-old CBS president and chairman did not rule out the possibility of another merger, like the one that fell through last week between CBS and Barry Diller's QVC. And, worse for CBS employees and stockholders, Tisch gave no indication of having a plan to fix what ails the network.

"Let's make it abundantly clear . . . CBS is not for sale. And let's just get that behind us," Tisch said in his first answer, setting a combative tone that continued throughout a 45-minute Q&A session with TV critics.

Reminded he had said the same thing to CBS affiliates in May, and then entered almost immediately into talks with Diller, Tisch said, "Let's get this straight. CBS was not for sale then. It's not for sale today."

He explained that apparent contradiction by saying, "After the -- affiliates meeting, this opportunity came up for CBS to merge with QVC. . . . The QVC situation was a unique situation, and we thought it made sense. And, if you look at it economically, it did make sense. We were, in effect, acquiring QVC at $32 a share. Then, somebody came in and bid $44 a share for QVC. And, I gather, the bidding's supposed to continue."

The merger with QVC was presented two weeks ago by CBS as being a done deal. Diller had even met with senior management at CBS in preparation to take over, with Tisch planning to step aside.

But last week Comcast made a $2.2 billion bid, at $44 a share, to take over QVC -- derailing the QVC-CBS merger plan.

To keep the merger on track, CBS would have had to enter a bidding war with Comcast. Tisch refused to take that path.

Asked about various other merger scenarios, such as Disney or John Malone from the cable giant TCI, Tisch said, "Why don't you people face reality? CBS is not for sale. For eight years now, I've been hearing about Disney. Don't you ever get tired of the same story?"

Tisch faced questions on most of CBS' major troubles yesterday: the lack of sports programming after losing the NFL to Fox, the loss of key affiliates to Fox, the network's failure to get into cable TV, and the graying of his audience beyond the 18-to-49-year-old demographic most desired by advertisers.

"It's going to take us time to rebuild the sports franchises, but we will do it," Tisch said.

Asked if CBS was surprised by Rupert Murdoch's raid of eight of the network's affiliates in May, Tisch said, "Well, of course, we were surprised. Rupert Murdoch offered New World $500 million to make the switch."

Questions about Murdoch and cable seemed to especially irritate Tisch. In discussing his "vision" for CBS, he said, "I'll do anything to make us stronger. But I'm not going to do silly things to get the story of the day."

While CBS is still No. 1 overall in prime-time ratings, it has the oldest audience of any network. This has resulted in lower ad rates. Asked how he planned to get younger viewers, Tisch said he didn't.

"I will never understand this theory that everybody over 49 is a deadbeat, because, if you look at the numbers, the highest income level in America today is the group between 49 and 54. And why they are left out of everybody's equation, I don't understand," Tisch said.

Reminded that the network buyers on Madison Avenue are spending more money on ABC because of ABC's younger audience, Tisch said of the ad buyers, "They will come around because they are very intelligent people."

Wall Street's reaction to Tisch's speech was swift. CBS Inc.'s stock fell 6 1/2 points in the final 17 minutes of trading after his comments were reported.

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