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CBS Affiliates Eyeing Prime-Time Ratings

Television: Concern over network politics fades as operators turn to boosting their fortunes.


Whatever apprehension CBS affiliates felt about a sudden management shake-up at the network appeared to fade by the opening of their annual convention Wednesday, with emphasis shifting to whether the network can continue to improve its prime-time ratings.

Michael Jordan, chairman and chief executive of network parent Westinghouse Electric Corp., apologized to station operators for the ill-timed departure of CBS President Peter Lund, who resigned last week on the eve of the affiliates meeting and as the network unveiled next season's programming lineup to advertisers.

Addressing the group Thursday at the Century Plaza Hotel, Jordan said, "We sort of apologize for the timing of this, in the midst of what should have been an unfettered celebration" of the network's solid ratings during the May sweeps--a key period stations use to determine local advertising rates.

CBS Station Group Chairman and Chief Executive Mel Karmazin--the network's single largest shareholder, whose assumption of control over CBS' TV stations (in addition to radio) prompted Lund's exit--continued to keep a low profile.

Even though affiliates considered Lund--a former station manager--one of their own and helpful in healing wounds left in the network-affiliate relationship by former CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch, their attention turned just as quickly to the network's role in boosting their fortunes.

"Peter was a guy whose handshake meant a lot. That goes a long way when you have to trust the spirit of an agreement as much as the letter," said Andrew Fisher of Cox Broadcasting, which owns stations affiliated with all three major networks.

Still, Fisher added: "If the [new] shows look good, people will leave here happy. The network politics don't matter."

"The affiliates are focusing on what they should focus on, which is performance," echoed Alan Bell, President of Freedom Communications, which owns four CBS stations.

Affiliates seemed generally enthusiastic about CBS' presentations--in particular, the prime-time lineup outlined by CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves, who received high praise for producer Steven Bochco's new police drama, "Brooklyn South."

As for Karmazin, CBS executives point out that his current job description, encompassing only those stations the network owns, doesn't directly affect the affiliate body.

Karmazin (who continues to shun reporters and didn't formally address the affiliates) is expected to slash costs in order to drive up profit margins at the station group. That offers potential benefits to them, some affiliates noted, only if CBS plows those resources back into acquiring programming.

Jordan vowed that CBS would make whatever investment is necessary to compete. And despite speculation that Karmazin may push for greater authority that could eventually threaten his position, Jordan cited the TV stations as being paramount to CBS' growth, lauding Karmazin as "a great operator, a great businessman" who is "always pushing to do things better."

Westinghouse's stock has climbed since the management reorganization. Shares jumped 10% in response to the news and closed Thursday at $20.125, up 37.5 cents, a 52-week high.

CBS also extended affiliates an olive branch on programming exclusivity, pledging not to repeat most programs elsewhere for at least one year after their initial showing on the network. NBC is still grappling over that issue with its stations, which are concerned about the network diluting their franchise by repeating such shows as "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and "Dateline NBC" on its cable channels.

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