CBS Sports isn't the joke Letterman thinks it is

ON THE AIR

September 21, 1994|By MILTON KENT

If things are as good at CBS Sports as new president David Kenin proclaims, then someone should tell David Letterman.

America's favorite late-night funnyman has been making rather ferocious sport of his own network's sports division of late.

For instance, toward the end of the U.S. Open fortnight, Letterman ran a video quiz, asking if the man pictured holding a camcorder was (A) a devoted tennis fan, (B) a parent of one of the players or (C) all that's left of CBS Sports.

When Kenin was relayed that story recently during the Presidents Cup golf tournament in Lake Manassas, Va., he chuckled and said, "Hey, that's David. He's pretty funny, even when he is getting after us."

But Letterman's jokes help feed a perception, warranted or not, that CBS Sports is ailing or, worse, worn down by a series of losses of valuable properties, announcers and production staff.

Not so, says Kenin.

"Sometimes you guys [media] live in a very myopic world, as do I," said Kenin. "We think about ourselves in projecting ruin based on our little experience, which is network television. This is really not what life is. It's just a part of the American entertainment and cultural experience. It's not life."

True enough, but Kenin's division has taken its share of bumps, dating back long before he arrived five months ago after 12 years at cable's USA Network.

Since spring 1991 -- just a few months after the network pronounced itself in the midst of a "Dream Season," in which the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series, Masters and NBA Finals appeared on its air -- CBS has lost all but the Final Four and the Masters.

In addition, the network reportedly suffered losses in the hundreds of millions in the course of a disastrous, four-year, $1 billion baseball contract.

The most galling loss came last December, when the upstart Fox network seized NFC football, the most lucrative package of all, from CBS after it had carried the NFL for 38 years. Just last week, Fox struck again, beating out CBS by $5 million for the NHL with a reported five-year, $155 million deal.

"There really is not a problem. We don't feel as if we're taking hits," said Kenin. "Frankly, we did lose football, but make a list of four things that we wanted to get that we didn't. There is no list."

Without confirming dollar figures, Kenin said the network bid aggressively for the NHL contract, and feels it could have delivered higher ratings than Fox. But he added that CBS was not willing to break up its golf package, which, while not delivering monster ratings for events besides the Masters, is a money-maker and delivers a desired demographic group.

Kenin says that under his watch, the network will be more prudent in what properties it seeks.

"We think that the level that was there before was an extreme level and didn't make any economic sense," said Kenin. "The level that we have reached is a good one. We would like to add a couple of things if we find the right things and have it make sense in a total offering and balanced package. But I don't think we'll be going after things willy-nilly."

For instance, Kenin said CBS might not bid for Wimbledon when it becomes available on Oct. 1, because portions of the tournament will run during weekdays, when the network's daytime schedule is, in Kenin's words, "dynamite."

And things do appear to be looking up for CBS Sports. Its recent coverage of the U.S. Open did 15 percent higher in the ratings than 1993, even without a football lead-in.

The network will be back in the college football business in January 1996, when it carries two of the three games in the top tier of the new Bowl Alliance.

Later that year, CBS will carry regular-season Southeastern and Big East football games, and just yesterday the network announced that it will carry the newly created Miami 300 NASCAR race, starting next November.

If they could just get the word to Letterman, things would be fine.

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