Desperate CBS reaches for the stars Network hoping 'names' can help stop its decline

July 24, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- You can't say CBS isn't doing all it can to improve its image after experiencing one of the worst ratings collapses in television history.

Over the weekend,the network trotted out David Letterman, Jessica Lange, Alec Baldwin, Lauren Hutton, Mariel Hemingway, Mary Tyler Moore, Cybill Shepherd, Nancy McKeon and Andrew Clay (aka Andrew Dice Clay, aka the Diceman) in an effort to generate a positive spin on the future of what is now the fourth-place network in demographics.

Despite the star-studded roster, several of the sessions were dominated by questions about ratings trouble, image problems and reports that the network could have a new owner in Westinghouse by the end of business today.

How do you convince 150 television critics that it's going to be a great new season starting this fall, when you can't comment on )) reports that you're going to be sold within 48 hours, with the possibility of a new management team taking over?

One trick that's generated good press for CBS in recent years is Letterman, a darling of the critics' group (which is dominated by white, middle-aged guys, like Letterman). But even that didn't work this time. Instead of the usual brand of fawning questions, Letterman was asked pointedly about being beaten for the first time by Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" (during the week of July 12) and a growing consensus that the "Late Show With David Letterman" is losing its edge.

Letterman started out sounding gracious toward Leno, saying, "They had a big week, so they deserved the win . . . congratulations to them."

As for his own drop in ratings, Letterman said, "It's human nature to want to blame all your problems on somebody else, and CBS just happens to be handy. [But] we've stopped now trying to say the lead- ins, the prime time, everything's going to hell . . . I'm

done whining about it."

Letterman said his show has been hurt by the loss of key personnel in recent months -- director Hal Gurnee, who retired, and head writer Rob Burnett, who left to produce "The Bonnie Hunt Show," a new CBS sitcom from Letterman's production company.

The "Late Show" is now reassessing itself, Letterman said, aiming for "a general sharpening up of the look of the show."

It didn't take long for Letterman to go from gracious to somewhat testy when pressed for specifics about changes. As specific as he got was to say that he was thinking about doing fewer Top 10 lists in coming weeks.

Letterman also said he was concerned about his own performance. "And I can give you a specific example of that," he said. "I felt disappointed in my interview with Hugh Grant. We were not lucky enough to get Hugh Grant right [away]. So, in getting him sixth or seventh, you were left with the responsibility of it's got to be different, and you have to ask the questions that people want answered. And I felt like I just went to sleep on the situation."

Letterman's session was followed by Leslie Moonves, the new president of CBS entertainment -- so new that he was still in his first week on the job.

Moonves, who has an excellent reputation for making television shows, is a walking advertisement for the turmoil at CBS. He was named to replace Peter Tortorici shortly after the network announced its new fall schedule, which Tortorici had designed, last May. No network has replaced its head programmer once he set a fall schedule.

CBS and its viewers are now stuck with Tortorici's schedule, more or less.

The less will be determined by how many last-minute lineup changes Moonves can work in the next six weeks. He's already pulled Montel Williams' "Matt Waters" series about an inner-city schoolteacher, moving it to midseason replacement status. He said Williams, a Baltimore native, is not yet ready for prime time.

dTC Moonves tried for upbeat, but the specter of the potential sale to Westinghouse hung over his session from beginning to end. The head of West Coast publicity for CBS introduced Moonves as "a potential Westinghouse employee of the week."

Moonves told critics he felt "like the kid in the candy store" controlling a network schedule. Then he added, "At least, it's my candy store until tomorrow, and then we'll see."

This was a reference to reports that Westinghouse had arranged $5 billion in financing and was about to make an offer to Laurence Tisch for the network.

"The early part of the season is probably going to be very difficult," Moonves said, referring to the situation CBS finds itself having gone from first to fourth place in one season. "CBS has put on . . . 11 new shows, and conventional wisdom says that may be too many. And that, in fact, may be the case."

After Moonves came the stars of one of those new shows -- Andrew Clay and Cathy Moriarty, of "Bless This House," a blue-collar sitcom that CBS would like viewers to think of as a cross between "The Honeymooners" and "Roseanne."

The first question was to Clay, asking why he no longer calls himself "Dice."

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