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Staying at CBS, Stringer Says : Television: Longtime exec says he's been asked to stay on board by Barry Diller, whose impact as the likely new CBS boss is seen as much broader than just programming.

July 02, 1994|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — CBS/Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer said Friday that he's been asked to remain in his job after the proposed merger between CBS Inc. and Barry Diller's QVC Network. Stringer's plans have been the subject of speculation since CBS and QVC confirmed plans for a merger on Thursday.

"I will stay on as head of the broadcast group," Stringer said in an interview. "Barry has asked me to stay, and I look forward to working for him. This merger is about building the company, taking it into new directions. I've spent my whole career at CBS, and I'm excited about the new possibilities for the company."

Stringer, who has been with CBS for 26 years, has 2 1/2 years remaining on his current CBS contract. He is credited with helping bring CBS from third to first place in prime time, and is considered a particularly smooth, effective liaison between the entertainment community and the business of broadcasting.

The prospects for Peter Tortorici, who recently succeeded Jeff Sagansky as the network's programming chief, and for other CBS entertainment executives also have been the subject of industry buzz, with insiders wondering whether Diller will bring his own creative team to CBS.

"Barry likes to bring in his own people, and Tortorici is not a known quantity to him," one CBS source said Thursday. "All the executives here are scrambling to figure out what their position is."

But Stringer said Friday that he expects Tortorici also to remain in his job. "Peter is my choice, and Barry wants him to stay," Stringer said.

It's hard to believe that Diller, the former head of the Fox network, will not have strong ideas about programming the new CBS. But the precise impact of his new role as president, CEO and chairman of CBS under the proposed merger remains to be seen.

CBS rose to first place this season with older-skewing shows, but ABC came in a close second by appealing to younger viewers. The network is likely to add more younger-appeal shows, a move already started with some new programs already scheduled for the fall. But, said Stringer, who has lambasted Fox's urban-appeal shows in the past, "Barry is not running around saying we've got to get 18- to 22-year-old viewers."

"Barry is a pragmatist, and the shows at Fox filled a niche," said Richard Frank, who worked with Diller at Paramount Studios and is now president of Walt Disney Studios. "CBS has a profile, and he's not starting from scratch there."

Diller's impact, observers say, will be much broader than prime-time programming. He is expected to increase CBS' in-house production of TV series for cable and international distribution and to create a cable channel after years of being the lone holdout (under current CBS chairman Laurence Tisch) among the Big Three broadcast networks.

"CBS has made blunder after blunder, from not getting into the cable business to losing CBS stations (in a recent raid by Murdoch and New World Communications)," said Jessica Reif, an investment analyst with Oppenheimer Co. in New York. "CBS had to make a change. One of the obvious benefits of the merger is getting Diller, one of the great programmers and visionaries in television. I think he'll move CBS into diversified areas like cable and international partnerships."

CBS executives say privately that they are eager to move away from Tisch's "broadcast-only" strategy, which has made millions, but, critics say, has left CBS out of important new businesses.

"One of the problems with CBS is that they've had a guy at the top (in Tisch) who's a financial genius but not a media genius," said Alan Bell, an Irvine-based broadcast-station executive who has served on the CBS affiliate board. "If Tisch had 50% less determination and 50% more insight into the creative community and the television business, it would have been better. I think Stringer and others were pulling against a weight when they convinced him to spend money on David Letterman or get into new areas. I think Diller will be much more supportive of new area. Diller is a shrewd assessor of market realities and an unconventional thinker. He'll look at CBS from a perspective that is unlike what others are thinking about."

Michael Fuchs, the chairman of Home Box Office, praises Diller as a visionary but said in an interview that "a lot of the (reporting) on Barry as a 'genius programmer' over the past six months is overblown. It's not that he's not a creative programmer, but I don't find the Fox network to be so terribly brilliant in its programming, and I don't think TV programming is his strength. I think his real benefit to the company will be that he's a terrific businessman and strategist. He'll be much more aggressive than Tisch."

Despite the enthusiasm for the new merger in the entertainment and financial communities, the deal raises a major question for CBS News: How deep is Diller's commitment to expensive, traditional news-gathering?

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