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CBS' Stringer Eases Stance Over Loss of NFL Games : Television: Concerned about reports he would punish Fox, he says his angry comments were intended to serve as inspiration for a network accused of complacency.


Howard Stringer, CBS Broadcast Group president, sought Thursday to defuse reports running through the television industry that he is angry and intends to punish the Fox network for luring away CBS' professional football franchise.

Rather, his harsh comments at an affiliates meeting in Carlsbad Monday were intended to be a motivational speech, he told a meeting of TV critics in Pasadena.

"I got riled up down there because I wanted to use what had happened as a kind of notice on the bulletin board--to my own staff and the affiliates--that 16 Sundays does not a season make," Stringer said. "When Fox executives called us complacent, I just wanted to banish all sense of complacency and use it as an opportunity to make us aggressive and competitive."

In other words, he said, he didn't want to let CBS affiliates feel sorry for themselves.

Stringer said that if CBS had matched Fox's purchase price of $1.58 billion for four-year broadcast rights to the NFL's National Conference games, the network would have lost $160 million to $200 million a year.

"How Fox will shift its offshore billions, I don't know," Stringer joked. "That's hard for me to judge, and I wish them well."

Stringer has no beef with Fox, he said, he's just upset over losing the personal relationships with longtime CBS personnel such as announcers Pat Summerall, John Madden and Terry Bradshaw.

"That made me mad--that's true," he said. "I'm not angry at Fox. They simply did to us what we, in effect, did to NBC on baseball."

Now, CBS must come up with some programming to fill Sunday afternoons.

CBS intends to return 90 minutes of what is now the football block to its affiliated stations, which they can fill with local or syndicated programming. As for the rest, "Loss is an opportunity," Stringer said. He already has been pitched everything to fill the slot "from Martha Stewart, to interactive, to bizarre sports--which we won't be doing--to family movies, to multiplex programming."

He did not rule out the idea of getting involved in developing a new professional football league, but said it would be very complicated.

Stringer maintained that CBS will retain its position as the No. 1 network this season, even though ABC is close behind, based on the strength of the Winter Olympics in February.

"This Olympics, given the Nancy Kerrigan situation . . . is going to be a fantastic Olympics," he said.

At a separate meeting with the TV critics Wednesday night, Jeff Sagansky, CBS Entertainment president, firmly stated that the broadcast networks have no intention of yielding to congressional pressure to develop a voluntary ratings system to address TV violence. Last week, representatives from the cable-TV industry agreed in principle to such a system and to establish an outside monitor for violent content.

"I don't think we need a ratings system," said Sagansky, who added that CBS instead is working hard to minimize necessary violence in its programs and to reduce the overall level of violence. He said that seven of the 10 highest-rated movies this season aired on CBS, and none of them was based on a true-crime story. "We don't rely on feature films and the harder-action and harder-edge shows that cable does. We're in a different business. We're broadcasters."

Stringer suggested that it's about time the rest of the TV industry step up: "For whatever role we play in violence, we have done our part. Now go out and worry about syndicators for a while, the cable industry for a while, all the people who are ducking under the general blanket indictment of network television--which in Washington passes for all television."

Stringer said he would like to see a more sophisticated discussion on violence in America, which is one reason why he commissioned a three-hour prime-time documentary on the subject for later this year.

In other programming news, Sagansky said that Tom Arnold's new series, "Tom," will debut after the Winter Olympics on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., now the home of "Hearts Afire," the John Ritter-Markie Post sitcom, which will be given a shot at reviving its sagging ratings by moving in April to Mondays at 9:30 p.m., after "Murphy Brown."

Sagansky announced several new prime-time projects in development at CBS, most notably a live dramatic broadcast in the spirit of "Playhouse 90." Francis Ford Coppola will direct "Top of the Ninth," about a major-league baseball pitcher at the crossroads of his life, in an actual baseball stadium sometime in April.

Producers working on drama series candidates for CBS are "Picket Fences" creator David E. Kelley, "Northern Exposure" creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf, "China Beach" co-creator John Sacret Young and "Magnum, P.I." creator Don Bellasario, who will return to Hawaii for his project.

Comedy development at the network includes a series starring Cybill Shepherd as a downwardly mobile woman, Dolly Parton as a TV cooking show host and a project from Rob Reiner about bedtime stories come to life.

And what about Rush Limbaugh in prime time? Eric Ober, CBS news president, confirmed Wednesday that negotiations are underway with the conservative media star to provide regular commentary on a new newsmagazine this spring. Ober assured TV critics that there would also be a liberal viewpoint presented.

"We believe in fairness and accuracy and balanced presentation," Ober said, "and we have always tried to balance out commentary positions."

Asked if he might put on Limbaugh-nemesis Howard Stern as a counterpoint, Ober said: "I've never considered putting Howard Stern on the air for any reason."

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