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Hey, Big Spender

CBS Entertainment chief Leslie Moonves is counting on big names and deep pockets to boost ratings and restore the Tiffany network's glow.

August 11, 1996|Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

Leslie Moonves often wondered what it would be like to run a network entertainment division. Now that he does, the executive talks at times wistfully about life outside the fishbowl.

Friends, however, say not to believe him, and even Moonves acknowledges that despite the frustration associated with being the chief programmer at third-place CBS, by and large he's having the time of his life.

After just over a year in the job, the 46-year-old onetime actor has arguably become the highest-profile TV executive since Brandon Tartikoff in NBC's heyday a decade ago--serving as CBS Entertainment's point man as the network begins seeking to rebound from two woeful years with a formula that officials chant like a mantra: new management and established stars.

Backed by corporate parent Westinghouse's deep pockets, Moonves has pursued the star strategy with a vengeance, signing sitcom giants Bill Cosby ("The Cosby Show") and Ted Danson ("Cheers") to headline new comedies, with commitments of 44 and 22 episodes, respectively.

The CBS fall lineup, in fact, at times looks like a 1980s NBC alumni team, with Rhea Perlman (from "Cheers"), Scott Bakula (from "Quantum Leap") and Don Johnson (from "Miami Vice") starring in series as well. All told, the Eye network is putting on 10 new shows--only one fewer than a year ago, when it was widely agreed that CBS went too far, too fast in trying to rebuild its lineup.

Sitting in his CBS Television City office, which includes a prominently displayed placard that reads "Nothing Is Impossible," Moonves maintains that the effect will be less jarring precisely because so many of those shows feature familiar faces. Besides the ex-NBC contingent, there is also Ken Olin (formerly of "thirtysomething"), Gerald McRaney (from "Major Dad" and "Simon & Simon") and Peter Strauss ("Rich Man, Poor Man").

"We think that some of these names that we've brought back are going to bring [viewers] back," he says.

Some have nonetheless accused CBS of overpaying for the Cosby and Danson deals, which constitute major gambles in a business that often seems better at making stars (witness "ER" and "Friends") than recycling them.

Still, observers say CBS' spending spree has already gone a long way toward winning the battle of perception, overcoming the sense of malaise that plagued the network under tightfisted tycoon Laurence A. Tisch. The question is how soon more tangible rewards--among them ratings and profits--will follow.

"There's two pieces to this," says Jeff Sagansky, who occupied the same chair Moonves does for more than four years, leaving in 1994 (right before CBS' slide) and subsequently joining Sony Corp. of America. "One part is the perception part. Les sort of thinks big, he talks big, and he spends big. He's a showman in the best sense of the word."

Yet that represents only the first hurdle in what promises to be a long road back. The next phase--whether viewers will again embrace those old stars--should be apparent one way or another not long after the season begins in mid-September, determining how much progress Moonves and his newly assembled management team have made in a short period of time.

"By Nov. 1, you'll know a lot," says one former network executive, who remains skeptical about CBS' chances.

For his part, Moonves stresses the significance of landing Cosby while simultaneously seeking to downplay pressure for the series to succeed in the ratings.

"Forget about the show for a second," he says. "The fact is, Bill Cosby was the biggest name in television for a decade. . . . The fact that CBS was able to say, 'We have Bill Cosby,' just perception-wise, said to the community, to the corporate world as well, 'They are in the business. They are not afraid to spend some money.'

"I think we needed to make a statement that there is life here. I think it picked up spirits throughout the company--that here is a big-time deal, which could have gone anywhere, that came to CBS."

CBS does appear to have come a long way in establishing a semblance of renewed vitality, benefiting in part from tumult elsewhere in the business.

"What he's done really effectively is shown that there's no piece of talent and no deal that CBS won't be a competitor for," Sagansky says. "He's landed a couple of really big fish. Whether those fish turn out to be winners or not, the fall season will answer that."

*

That CBS even warrants such speculation is something of an accomplishment in itself. After a three-year reign as the top-rated network, CBS made an unprecedented plunge directly into the prime-time cellar two years ago. The network finished last season not only third in homes but also fourth--trailing Fox--in the key audience demographics that dictate advertising rates.

The crash occurred under then-Entertainment President Peter Tortorici, who inherited a leaky ship from Sagansky in 1994. Despite topping the ratings, CBS had failed to develop new hits while series such as "Murphy Brown," "Rescue 911" and "Murder, She Wrote" aged.

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