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VIEWPOINTS : CBS : How Can CBS Cut Static, Get Programmed for Success?

September 28, 1986| WILLIAM V. WEITHAS | William V. Weithas is chairman and chief executive of SSC&B:Lintas Worldwide, an international advertising company with 78 offices in 46 countries

CBS, once called "the Tiffany of Broadcasting," has been tarnished in recent months. A year ago, the network began sliding into second place and it may be headed toward third in the ratings this year. Profits are down and hundreds of broadcasting jobs have been cut in recent months.

The myriad of problems at CBS didn't sit well with Laurence A. Tisch, the New York investor and self-made billionaire who recently bought nearly 25% of CBS stock. And two weeks ago, the festering turmoil in the top ranks of CBS became a widely reported public sore. Chairman Thomas H. Wyman was ousted, reportedly because of his rift with Tisch and because he sought a potential buyer for CBS without approval from the board of directors.

In the wake of Wyman's removal, Tisch has joined company founder and broadcast pioneer William S. Paley at the helm of CBS. Company directors have formed a committee to search for Wyman's successor. The winning candidate faces the challenge of boosting morale, cutting costs and attracting new talent to CBS.

The Times invited a variety of observers in or near the broadcasting industry to provide some insights into the beleaguered network--and to offer some advice.

Few business events have commanded the degree of media attention that has been directed at the recent management changes at CBS. In a sense, many of us in this business experienced sympathy pains.

This was the network that gave us Lucy, Walter Cronkite, Archie Bunker, "60 Minutes" and many others. This was a network of stability, leadership and dependable coverage and ratings. This was the network that was once the dependable base of our advertising efforts.

Traditionally, the networks and advertisers were viewed as partners in the business of marketing products, goods and services. More recently, the strength of these relationships has been tested.

A major problem has been the inflation of television costs, and the general perception that the networks did little to control the situation. In fact, they actively complicated it.

If you talk to advertisers, many will tell you that the past two decades have been marked by spiraling costs. Studios grew fat. Stars' salaries skyrocketed. Rights for sporting events jumped dramatically each time they were renewed. The networks were trying to outbid each other.

As sports profited from television, the players insisted on their share of the windfall, and thus another round was started. In the end, the advertisers had to pick up the tab.

The advertisers found themselves trapped. They were caught between the constant cycle of price increases exceeding the growth rate of the economy, and their desire to continue to use this powerful medium. The word arrogant was used to describe network pricing policies.

Another source of friction between advertisers and the networks was programming. Sex and violence became common in a medium once known for all-family fare.

The desire of the programmers and producers to be contemporary and topical began to alienate many people and spurred the growth of public activist groups.

Advertisers found themselves in the position of defending programming that they had no control over. It's no surprise that advertisers welcomed cable and syndication with open arms and lent financial support to help these network alternatives grow.

The networks have made much progress in addressing their problems. Steps have been taken to control costs, and the quality of programming has been improved.

William S. Paley and Laurence A. Tisch have publicly stated their intention that CBS refocus on its heritage and values. We applaud them.

In that same spirit, I would ask that they add one important criterion to their search for a new leader: Name someone that will signal a return to the closer working relationship that advertisers, agencies and the networks once enjoyed. Name someone with the vision to see that this will benefit us all.

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