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October 23, 1994|JENNIFER GLIMPSE | Jennifer Glimpse is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

If a Montana pass makes you think of a country road outside Butte and a tight end is what you hope to have after a year of step aerobics, then CBS wants you.

The network that lost football is taking a new tack on Sunday afternoons. Football fanatics are long gone, they figure, but there's still an audience to be had, an audience no one's ever really considered for that time period.

CBS asked itself, " 'What can we put in that (Sunday afternoon time slot) that's going to attract an audience,' " says Steve Warner, CBS senior vice president for program planning. What they realized, says Warner, was "nobody's really been programming to women."

Those hitherto bored, annoyed and untapped on Sunday afternoons are now first and foremost on the minds of CBS programming executives. So how is CBS addressing the needs of women, ages 25 to 54?

"One of the things that we wanted to do since we'd not been programming this day part with anything but football for 38 years was to try a bunch of different things," says Warner. "This gave us an opportunity to do that and not be pegged to one specific program situation."

The network kicked off its "Sunday Afternoon Showcase" with a series of Harlequin romance movies, garnering modest but respectable ratings in their first week out. Later in the season the "Showcase" will present CBS Sports' "Eye on Skating," which will feature world-class international figure-skating championships.

But this week CBS begins a series of films produced by Hallmark Entertainment, the same company that produces "Hallmark Hall of Fame" specials, programs that have brought CBS prime-time success. Running the gambit from comedy to thriller, these new Hallmark Entertainment films are all designed to appeal to an adult female audience.

"They're all really well-told stories, with good casts and excellent auspices," says Warner.

CBS hopes to capitalize on the Hallmark stamp. "I think the Hallmark name is obviously a very important name," says Warner. 'The Hallmark Hall of Fames' always do well. They do well for two reasons. One, they're really good pictures. And two, because they've sort of become a brand name and people expect that they're going to see a terrific product when they turn on a 'Hallmark Hall of Fame.' These are not 'Hallmark Hall of Fames,' but I still think that the Hallmark name is incredibly important."

Executive producer Dick Welsh (who also produced the Emmy-winning "To Dance With the White Dog" and "Breathing Lessons") says Hallmark's approach to difficult subject matter is what distinguishes its productions from others.

"You will never be offended by the way anything is presented," says Welsh. "We don't go for shock just to attract people or stimulate a story. There are always other ways to say what has to be said. And we always concentrate on doing that."

But while these are Hallmark Entertainment productions, Welsh says it is unfair to compare them to the Hall of Fames. "We have much more to work with when we're doing a 'Hallmark Hall of Fame,' " he says. "The budgets are higher and the development time is longer and the shooting schedule is much longer."

For Welsh and Hallmark, the "Sunday Afternoon Showcase" presents an opportunity for experimentation.

"There are people out there who want all kinds of entertainment and they're entitled to have it," says Welsh. "We're real happy because we're doing different kinds of movies. I hope it works because I'm always interested in providing material for all kinds of audiences."

But will women be watching? "We don't expect women as a monolithic group to come and turn to this," says CBS' Warner. "But what we're looking for is to get a good core audience. We're approaching this gingerly and we'll see how we do. We're not trying to set ourselves up for failure."

"The Sunday Afternoon Showcase" airs at 1 p.m. on CBS.


Trick of the Eye: A psychological thriller starring Meg Tilly and Ellen Burstyn. Sunday.

Star Struck: A romantic comedy starring Kirk Cameron, Chelsea Noble (Cameron's real-life wife) and D.W. Moffett. Oct. 30.

Spring Awakening: Based on the Willa Cather stoy "Resurrection" and starring Sherilyn Fenn and Jamey Sheridan. Nov. 6.

The Oksana Baiul Story: The life of the figure skater and Olympic gold medalist from Odessa; starring newcomer Monica Keena and Miguel Ferrer. Nov. 13.

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