Attracting a younger audience is the same old problem for CBS

January 07, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Finally, after two years of insisting that it was right and everybody else was wrong about demographics, the brass at CBS admitted yesterday that its prime-time audience is way too old.

"We have to re-invent ourselves," said Peter Tortorici, president of CBS Entertainment. "CBS has got to achieve a greater level of balance in demographics. We don't have enough programming on our schedule that goes after the younger adult audience."

Mr. Tortorici defined the new target audience for CBS as those viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, which gives you some idea of how old most viewers of the network are.

"When I say the younger adult audience, I'm not even talking 18-to-34s, I'm talking about 25-to-54s. We skew too old in too much of our schedule," Mr. Tortorici said.

"Look, if at the end of the day if we can have a situation where if I could look out over the vast landscape of America and our audience was applauding and most of the lights didn't go out because they were using the Clapper, I'd think we were accomplishing something," Mr. Tortorici said to laughter from the television critics gathered here for the winter press tour and preview of spring shows.

Mr. Tortorici said Cybill Shepherd's "Cybill" and Delta Burke's "Women of the House" are the kinds of series he hopes will attract such viewers. Both premiered this week, to mixed reviews and inconclusive ratings.

While it's far too early to make a definitive call, "Cybill" appears to have the better chance of succeeding.

It has a more inviting time period -- on Mondays after "Murphy Brown." Furthermore, it has some sense of fun, as opposed to the grating, soap-box politics of producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason that so weighs down "Women of the House."

CBS opened its two-day stop on the tour yesterday with Ms. Shepherd, who said she wasn't feeling any particular pressure to try to lift CBS out of its demographic tailspin. In fact, as she pointed out, her character is a grandmother -- though not one who uses the Clapper to turn out the lights.

"I just see the series as a chance to deal with some of the issues I wasn't seeing explored on television about a woman in her prime," Ms. Shepherd said.

Mr. Tortorici did announce a major schedule of special events for the winter and spring months, a period that has come to be known in the industry as "the second season."

They include two major mini-series for February and May. "Children of the Dust" stars Sidney Poitier and Regina Taylor in a story about African-Americans founding a town in Oklahoma after the Civil War. "Buffalo Girls" stars Anjelica Huston, Melanie Griffith and Reba McIntyre in another western -- this one about Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.

CBS also has Neil Simon rewriting "Sunshine Boys" for Peter Falk and Woody Allen, an impressive lineup of talent.

But neither the westerns nor a rewrite of "Sunshine Boys" for men in their 50s will solve CBS' big demographics problem. That's going to take time. And that means CBS and its affiliates, such as WJZ in Baltimore, are going to suffer at the cash register for a while.

"Our schedule is a work in progress. . . . We are rebuilding," Mr. Tortorici said, comparing CBS' situation today to another time of change in the network's history.

"I'd compare us to CBS as it was back in the 1970s. CBS' circumstances then were not as challenging as they are now -- different TV universe," Mr. Tortorici said.

"But they needed to change their identity. Their audience was older and it was rural.

"And they [CBS management in the '70s] made some wholesale changes that were pretty revolutionary. . . . And they got lucky with something called 'All in the Family.' And then, they had a relationship with Norman Lear and Grant Tinker and MTM, and the profile of CBS changed dramatically.

". . . That's what we need to do now," he continued. "We need to re-invent ourselves one more time."

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