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RICK DU BROW

Can Jeff Sagansky Steer CBS Back Into the TV Limelight? : Television: The new CBS Entertainment leader's decisions will have a major impact on the future of the network. His main competitor will be his former mentor, NBC's Brandon Tartikoff.

January 13, 1990|RICK DU BROW

CBS Television City is a thrilling sight outlined against the night as you drive by on Beverly Boulevard. Even empty, the large, brightly lighted offices, clearly visible from the street, radiate a kind of show business magic and power--the inner sanctum from which grand television programs originate and spread to all corners of the globe.

Alas, it has been a sad building for several years. The programs haven't been so grand, the company has slipped bumpily to the bottom of the ratings and CBS--once the impeccable and unchallenged champion of the networks--has lost its way. Not a single major hit series has been launched by the network since "Murder, She Wrote" arrived in 1984. Incredible.

But there is real hope these days at CBS. The network thinks it has finally found a major leader in Jeff Sagansky, the new president of CBS Entertainment. And his whirlwind actions this week and last--yanking "The Famous Teddy Z," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Snoops" from the prime-time lineup--were at least proof of an executive who knows his mind and isn't afraid to make quick, unpopular decisions in the interests of long-range planning.

If symbolism and omens mean anything, these weeks may be recalled some day as a turning point for CBS, if it is still around. For Sagansky--who helped develop such shows as "Cheers" and "Miami Vice" at NBC and headed Tri-Star Pictures when it turned out "Steel Magnolias," "Look Who's Talking" and "Glory"--took over CBS Entertainment as the new year and new decade were dawning.

And in three of the last four weeks, bottom-ranked CBS moved up to second place in the ratings--none of which really had much to do with Sagansky, but can't help raise the hopes of even sophisticated corporate types that maybe the guy carries some kind of rabbit's foot.

There's a personal competition that makes Sagansky's appointment all the more intriguing. Sagansky, in his first weeks as CBS Entertainment president, is going up against his mentor, NBC's Brandon Tartikoff, who, by chance, this month is marking his 10th year in the job. What's more, Sagansky went to Harvard, Tartikoff to Yale. Their competition has the makings of colorful Hollywood theater: master versus disciple, heavyweight champ versus a "Rocky"-type underdog network.

Sagansky's main tasks seem clear. And none is more important than giving CBS a sense of identity and a sense of direction once again. There was a time when CBS meant elegance, certainty, efficiency. Cool but classy. Even in the days of its cornball, rural-oriented shows--"The Beverly Hillbillies," "Green Acres," "Hee Haw" and "Petticoat Junction"--CBS knew what it was doing and where it was going.

Then, in the early 1970s, CBS, thinking sharply, changed its face--dumping the rural shows and presenting a remarkable lineup of contemporary comedies that included "All in the Family," "MASH," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Bob Newhart Show."

Now, just about two decades later, CBS is at the crossroads again, and Sagansky's decisions will have a major impact on the future of the network.

He has inherited a major piece of good fortune, Candice Bergen's "Murphy Brown." Each network that has come back from ratings failure in recent years has done so by building on a trademark show--the kind of series that epitomizes the quality of programming it wants to be known for. With NBC, it was "Hill Street Blues." With ABC, it was "Moonlighting"--for a short while, to be sure, but long enough to indicate the network's aspirations.

And "Murphy Brown" is a trademark show that any network would be proud of. Not a whopping hit, it nonetheless is the now-and-future hope of CBS--something to build around, along with its companion Monday series, "Designing Women" and "Newhart," with its extraordinarily enduring and endearing star.

But then it's up to Sagansky. What will CBS stand for? Where is it going? NBC found its way almost accidentally, discovering that such shows as "Hill Street Blues" and even "Cheers," which did not score strongly in the ratings at first, were quietly drawing their strength from young, urban audiences--and those big-city viewers brought major money from advertisers, even while the network was still in last place. And as important as the money was the sense of self that NBC found.

It's a pity CBS didn't hang tough longer with "Beauty and the Beast," but Sagansky clearly wanted to start unloading questionable ratings entries that he felt didn't have a future. And it's especially hard to swallow with CBS committing to "The Bradys," an hour comedy series based on the nitwit show "The Brady Bunch." But with CBS scoring big with the special "A Very Brady Christmas," the commercialism is at least frank if not satisfying.

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