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COMPANY TOWN : In the Eye of a Storm : As CBS' Ratings Tumble, New Exec Is on Firing Line

October 07, 1994|JOHN LIPPMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the fall TV season barely out of the starting gate, a slip from first to third place in the prime-time ratings has sent a panic wave through the executive corridors of CBS.

At the center of the maelstrom is not Chairman Laurence Tisch or Broadcast Group President Howard Stringer, who are familiar to media controversy, but a little-known ex-producer named Larry Sanitsky.

Sanitsky, whose credits include last season's acclaimed hit "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," joined CBS Entertainment in May as executive vice president and quickly set about canceling much of CBS' movie slate, which accounts for 14% of programming.

Critics say Sanitsky, who is known for his brusque style, hurt the network by replacing its traditional "true crime" movies, such as "Precious Victims," with tear-jerkers, such as "The Gift of Love." But his backers say Sanitsky is getting a bad rap. They attribute the complaints to sour grapes from producers who are out of favor at CBS.

Made-for-TV movies have traditionally been a key part of CBS' programming. The network churns out nearly 70 titles a year, more than ABC and NBC combined--and movies have been a major reason for the network's first-place standing in the past three seasons. Indeed, when Fox chief Rupert Murdoch last week named former CBS executive John Matoian program head of the Fox network, he specifically credited Matoian's record in TV movies for turning CBS around.

The shift in strategy undertaken by Sanitsky last summer resulted in the scrapping of between 25 and 30 movies that were in development at the network. Most of the killed projects were "true crime" and "women-in-distress" movies, which filled the network's powerhouse Tuesday night movie slot. In their place, CBS loaded up on "strong female emotional-base" dramas more in keeping with its higher-toned Sunday night movie schedule.

Sanitsky says the shift in strategy was made to counter ABC's success on Tuesday night, where sitcoms and the drama "NYPD Blue" are popular with female audiences. Moreover, Sanitsky says that viewers also simply grew "sick of the tabloid" nature of many TV movies.

Another problem CBS faced was what to do with the programming hole left open on Sunday afternoon when NFL football jumped to Fox. To counter Fox, CBS ordered four female- and family-oriented "Harlequin" TV movies and four "Hallmark Hall of Fame" specials.

So far this season, however, the new CBS strategy has not clicked.

"The CBS Sunday Night Movie," which was down 11% in the ratings last season, has slipped further in recent weeks. The season's first movie, "A Gift of Love" starring Andy Griffith, earned a rating 26% below last season's average for the Sunday movie. The following week "The Gambler V," starring Kenny Rogers, plummeted to a record low. The two "CBS Tuesday Night Movies" also performed below their season averages.

Now, in what has become one of the stranger episodes to unfold in Hollywood, Sanitsky has become the target of a campaign to oust him by a contingent of disaffected producers.

The rancor has become so bitter that for several weeks there has been a rumor that a "petition" bearing the signatures of 57 people was circulating, saying that Sanitsky was jeopardizing the network's relations with producers. The petition was said to be organized by Robert Halmi Sr., one of CBS' biggest suppliers of TV movies and miniseries.

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Halmi denies any knowledge of a petition, though he delivered several pointed barbs at Sanitsky. "If somebody brings me a petition, I'll sign it," he says.

Halmi, who produced the hit CBS miniseries "Lonesome Dove" as well as the upcoming "Gone With the Wind" sequel, "Scarlet," says Sanitsky's strategy has hurt CBS. "He canceled every development project that (former CBS Entertainment President Jeff) Sagansky started. That created a void he cannot fill. After December, they have no films," he says.

CBS executives defend Sanitsky and say management backs him. "I think Larry's doing a fantastic job," says Peter Tortorici, president of CBS Entertainment. "There are always people unhappy with network buyers, particularly in times of transition in program strategies. There are projects that get stepped on in the process. It's unfortunate, but it happens."

While Sanitsky indeed appears to have alienated one of the network's important suppliers--Halmi says 90% of all programs he's ever produced have been on CBS--Sanitsky counters that Halmi is upset because he no longer has in CBS the pliant buyer of the past. Sanitsky notes, for example, that Halmi angled to get a "multi-picture contract for a reduced license fee," essentially locking up slots on the CBS schedule with Halmi products.

"I don't want to commission the schedule to one supplier," Sanitsky explains. "I was quite vocal that as long as I was here that wouldn't happen."

However, it's not just Sanitsky's blunt style that has angered producers, but what some contend is bizarre behavior.

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