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CBS Exec LeMasters Spells Out Plan for Network's Future

November 18, 1987|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Kim LeMasters, the new president of CBS Entertainment, reacted with a whimsical wince rather than dismay when questioned about the fact that he was not the first choice for the job.

"Listen, it probably would have been better to come (into the job) with trumpets blaring," LeMasters admitted seven days after his appointment. "But it is my responsibility now to come in here, and I'm doing the job."

LeMasters, 38, took the helm of CBS' entertainment division--overseeing the production, scheduling and promotion of all network programming except news and sports--on Nov. 10, after more than a week of speculation as to who would fill the job vacated Oct. 30 by B. Donald (Bud) Grant. Grant abruptly resigned to enter independent production amid rumors that he had been forced out of the job after several seasons of declining ratings.

Some in the industry believed LeMasters was equally culpable, since he had been vice president of programs at the network for the past 19 months and had been deeply involved in putting many of CBS' new shows on the schedule this fall. Although several have won critical acclaim, none has emerged as a ratings hit.

The days of uncertainty fueled talk that LeMasters was not the first choice for the job--a rumor confirmed when it became known that the position had been offered to at least one other person--"L.A. Law" executive producer Steven Bochco, who turned it down in favor of a major development deal with ABC.

LeMasters believes all of that is irrelevant now and has embraced the new post with enthusiasm.

"I suppose it's the difference between going from co-pilot to pilot: It's kind of nice," he said.

In an interview Monday in his cheerfully rustic office at CBS Television City, LeMasters said the network's delay in awarding him the new position and its consideration of candidates from outside the company was a sensible course of action.

"I do think Bud made an election about what he wanted to do with his life," he said.

"And CBS--rightfully, since they were caught unawares by the move--took the opportunity to make sure whomever they put in the job was somebody they wanted on a long-term basis, you know. I think CBS conducted its business perfectly."

Despite the network's first look elsewhere, LeMasters seemed a logical candidate for promotion. A 1971 graduate of UCLA, he came to CBS in 1976 as director of dramatic program development. In 1979, he was appointed vice president of that department, then moved on to become vice president of comedy development in 1980 and vice president of program development in 1981. He later left and worked for a year as vice president of motion picture production for Walt Disney Productions, then returned as vice president of the miniseries department in 1985.

LeMasters, who said he hasn't "had time to come up with a clear-cut agenda" for the network, does have an obvious challenge: to return CBS to the leadership position it enjoyed for six years before NBC took over in 1985.

The network's fall season, which features eight hours of new prime-time programming, has recently earned some of its lowest ratings ever. Eight weeks into the season, CBS is running third with an average rating of 13.8, compared to 16.6 for NBC and 14.2 for ABC (each point represents 886,000 households).

"What we have is a very clear-cut problem--to get on the road to recovery, to be No. 1 in the ratings," LeMasters said. "How long it takes to get to No. 1, I don't know. But it's certainly a place I'd like to be."

LeMasters won't have the same kind of support in that effort that Grant did: His old position as vice president of programs will not be filled, as CBS continues to "streamline" its staff.

"I think we will . . . try it without that extra layer of bureaucracy," he said.

One of LeMasters' first and most unpleasant duties in his new job had to do with streamlining. Last Friday, LeMasters was charged with firing 20 of the 35 members of the movie and miniseries department in the network's continuing effort to favor series programming over movies. CBS cut two of its movie nights this season to make room for more series.

LeMasters said he doesn't know why the network waited until mid-season to lay off the staffers, and that he had been asked "to do a review to find out the minimum number of people who could perform that job." It wasn't an easy decision, he added.

"Those people--I worked with them for a year of my life when I was . . . doing miniseries," he said. "It was the worst day I've had, really cruddy. They'll all land on their feet, but that was like dental surgery without twilight sleep."

LeMasters said the development load for the department has not been pared, with 200 movies and about 50 miniseries remaining in development. He said the number of projects produced would be much smaller, however--down to about 35 next season from about 60 in previous years. The figure this season will be 45 to 50, reflecting some carry-over projects from last season.

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