AFFILIATES FOCUS ON BLACK ROCK'S BLACK EYE

By Published on .

This week, CBS tries to bolster ratings with its toughest audience: the affiliates.

Black Rock executives are going into the Los Angeles meeting with a pair of black eyes from last week-the departure of evening news co-anchor Connie Chung and the announcement of a fall schedule that left some observers scratching their heads.

The decision to go back to Dan Rather as single anchor had the New York tabloids competing for the most audacious headline ("Connie: I'm the fall guy," the New York Post blared; "Cunning back stabber Chung," the New York Daily News trumpeted).

"We just decided it wasn't working," CBS News President Eric Ober said.

CBS President, Chairman and CEO Larry Tisch said he was "amazed by how much attention it's [the Rather-Chung breakup] gotten, but that's the press' option." He declined to discuss his role in the decision.

It was widely speculated Ms. Chung might move to Fox, though at week's end the only known offer she had received was from Comedy Central. Without her, it's unclear who CBS will groom to succeed the 63-year-old Mr. Rather.

"In the long haul, that's the biggest tragedy. CBS News lost 24 months in the development process. It's something they'll have to deal with," a former CBS News executive said.

But CBS has a lot to deal with these days, from the loss of affiliates to Fox over the move of National Football Conference games to declining prime-time ratings, its failure to diversify into cable and continuing questions about the network's future ownership.

For starters, affiliates are sure to have lots of questions this week about the fall schedule that includes 11 new programming brands and changes on every single night of the week.

In total, CBS will make changes affecting 12 hours-more than half its 22 hours of weekly prime-time programming.

That would normally be a challenge, but this year, it is a seemingly insurmountable hurdle because of a record number of network new show launches competing for viewers' attention, Nielsen rating points and advertising dollars.

Of the 11 returning series that have been around for at least two years and therefore can be tracked, 10 are down and some have fallen precariously.

"The only one of the 11 returning shows that we can track that is up is `The Nanny,' which is up 37% to a 12.5 rating," said Jonathan Sims, VP-research of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, which this week will release a study of similar findings for all the broadcast networks.

All this means that perhaps more than at any other time in its history, marketing will play a decisive role in the future of CBS.

No one is more cognizant of that fact than George Schweitzer, exec VP-marketing and communications of CBS, who is engineering one of the most aggressive and unusual fall promotion marketing strategies ever by a broadcast network.

The linchpin will be a massive fall marketing alliance with Sears.

The joint promotion is not that unusual, but the partnership with Sears signals some of CBS' intent to move its aging audience younger. Recently, for the first time ever for a TV network, the median age of CBS' audience topped 50.

In five of the six past fall promotion efforts, CBS tapped into the massive in-store and circular promotion clout of Kmart, but this year, CBS switched to Sears because of the younger and more urban appeal of its mall-based customers.

"It was a deliberate choice," said Mr. Schweitzer. "We're going after younger women and, secondarily, men."

The effort will include in-store promotions at 800 Sears locations that will also involve localized promotions with CBS-affiliated stations.

Extensive print, radio and cable TV media buys will also support, as well as interactive promotions on the Prodigy online service and CBS' World Wide Web site.

"As a promotional department store, we're constantly looking for new ways to create excitement and bring more customers into our stores. We think this promotion with CBS will be very effective at driving awareness, traffic and revenues for Sears and for CBS," said Sears Senior Exec VP John Costello.

The Sears promotion will provide a massive base for CBS' overall fall marketing efforts, but Mr. Schweitzer said the network is completely rethinking the way it markets its new shows, including adopting a brand management approach to the process.

He said CBS is assigning dedicated brand managers to each of its new shows. Some are existing CBS marketing staffers who are being redeployed and others are being recruited from the outside.

"The traditional way we did it was that one person did the promo, another did the advertising and another did the marketing. But the traditional lines of television are all coming together," said Mr. Schweitzer. "I think a brand manager for a network TV launch is a better way to go."

He said some of the managers are coming from "the cable world, because they know positioning and targeting very well."

Mr. Schweitzer said cable also is a bigger part of its off-CBS media buys this fall, including major upfront commitments to such hip, young networks as MTV, VH1, E! and Comedy Central.

Mr. Schweitzer said CBS also is developing new fall promotional efforts for "Late Show With David Letterman," its daytime lineup and CBS News.

But it is a couple of new prime-time hits that ultimately could make all the difference in CBS' fortunes and would go a long way toward quieting critics and unsettled CBS shareholders.

"You have to keep in mind that virtually every negative thing being said about CBS today was being said about NBC two or three years ago. But look at NBC today," said Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of broadcast research at BJK&E Media Group, New York.

Indeed, Mr. Tisch said that after affiliates see the new crop of programs, "they'll know we've turned around already."

That's not good enough, said Ralph Gabbard, affiliate board chairman and general manager of WKYT-TV in Lexington, Ky.

Mr. Tisch "has to address what his plans are. We have more than a vested interest in that network. Without us, there is no network. Our livelihood depends on it," Mr. Gabbard said.

He'd like to hear Mr. Tisch say he'll either "sell it to someone who will run it like a broadcast organization or hire people who can and get out of the way."

But he doesn't expect to hear that, despite the almost constant reportage that the "for sale" sign is out at Black Rock.

Despite all CBS' problems, Mr. Gabbard said the affiliates will work with CBS, as long as the network makes changes and recognizes it's not business as usual anymore.

Mr. Gabbard said he is counting on CBS Broadcast Group President Peter Lund, who has a background as a broadcaster, to make a difference. Mr. Lund, previously president of the CBS Television Network and an exec VP of the CBS Broadcast Group, was tapped to head the organization when Howard Stringer was recruited to manage Tele-TV earlier this year.

"He recognizes the problems and is looking for solutions," Mr. Gabbard said.

Electronic Media Reporter Jon Lafayette contributed to this story.

In this article:
Most Popular