CBS decides older is wiser Flip-flop: The network acknowledges its mistake in abandoning older viewers in a chase for the young and casts its eye back to its traditional audience.

January 15, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- In one of the most abrupt reversals of strategy in network television history, CBS announced during the weekend that it is through chasing after viewers in their 20 and 30s and wants to win back its older audience.

It was only six months ago that the struggling network launched 11 new series -- like "Central Park West," a prime-time soap opera from the creator of Fox's "Melrose Place" -- and a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign aimed exclusively at young viewers.

"In terms of looking at what's happened to the CBS schedule over the last six months, there were mistakes that we made," said Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment.

Zeroing in on the advertising campaign for last fall's new series as one of the biggest mistakes, Moonves said, "What that campaign did in taking "Central Park West" and the whole campaign of 'We are hipper, we are younger, we are Fox' is basically say to our core audience, 'Not only is "Central Park West" not for you, but no longer is CBS. If you're over 35, get lost.' It was a whole network identification, and it was wrong."

How wrong? Not only did CBS not attract young viewers with its new look last fall, falling to fourth place behind Fox with the key 18- to-49-year-old audience, it lost 20 percent of its core audience of older viewers from the year before. Many of those viewers switched to cable channels, like A&E, because of the emphasis among all the networks on youth.

How bad are things at CBS as a result?

"We are almost viewing the cable defection as sort of good news in that there's the possibility of getting the older people back, as opposed to having lost them to some of our competitors, you know," Moonves said.

Moonves, CBS' chief programming executive, announced a flurry renewals and changes, all of which are aimed at the traditional CBS audience of older viewers.

The biggest news is that "Murphy Brown," which was expected to end its long and celebrated network run in May, will be back next fall with Candice Bergen.

"We signed Candice and are in the midst of putting together the rest of the cast, which we feel will be no problem," Moonves said. " 'Murphy Brown' is a franchise that we feel, obviously, represents some of the best of what we're about."

Moonves also stressed the $20 million deal CBS signed with Bill Cosby to star in a sitcom starting in the fall. Cosby and his new series are likely to be at the center of a very different advertising campaign come September.

And, while Moonves said the future of "Murder She Wrote" is still up in the air for next fall, he stressed that the network has signed Angela Lansbury for two made-for-TV movies.

As for the youth series CBS put on last fall, some have already been canceled, and Moonves acknowledged that all 11 could wind up that way by May. But he's hoping some can be fixed to appeal to a wider spectrum.

In the case of producer Darren Star's "Central Park West," Moonves said what he wants is a "younger 'Knot's Landing' rather than another 'Melrose Place.' " In line with that, Raquel Welch joins the cast, replacing Mariel Hemingway; Gerald McRaney has also signed on. The retooled "Central Park West" will be relaunched in March or April, according to Moonves.

Everywhere you looked during CBS' two-day mid-season presentation to television critics here, the theme was older is better.

One session featured Neil Simon and Alan Alda promoting a television adaptation of Simon's "Jake's Women" -- a play about the internal life of a 55-year-old man. Another highlighted a new action adventure series, "Nash Bridges" starring Don Johnson, which was being pitched as "traditional."

"When you look back to 'Rockford' and 'Magnum, P.I.' -- the action-adventure-comedy, I think we've got that kind of guy in that kind of traditional CBS drama," Moonves said.

"Our mantra is traditional yet fresh old wine in a new bottle," he added. " 'ER' was a fairly traditional show in a new type of form. We are not going to do shows geared to 25-year-olds. What we are going to do is deal in the traditional genres and try to add something of a new spin to them."

Moonves said the abrupt change from younger to older and from new to traditional is the result of CBS listening to what viewers have told the network not just through the Nielsen ratings but also in focus group interviews.

In line with that, he also said he was going to urge Hollywood producers to cut back on the coarse language and sexual situations, which have come to dominate the 8 to 9 p.m. time period -- once known as the family viewing hour.

"I think we have to be more careful about what's shown at 8 or 8:30, and we're heading toward that," Moonves said. "There's something out there in the country which is rejecting a lot of that."

Moonves acknowledged that he is the same guy who stood before the critics in July defending the language of "Bless This House" as well as trying to sell the younger CBS. In his defense, he said, he had only been on the job six days since leaving Warner Brothers where he was responsible for developing such shows as "ER."

He also acknowledged that getting Madison Avenue to buy older demographics is not going to be easy. Even though older viewers do tend to have more money, they are less easily swayed by television commercials. But CBS has no other choice.

"Part of our sales pitch is to say, 'Hey, you know, this 18-to-49 thing might be a little too severe'," Moonves said. "You know, with the advent of the baby boomer this year being 50 years old, as opposed to CBS changing its demographics, maybe it's time for Madison Avenue to change their demographics and start realizing a 50-plus might be more malleable than they think."

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