The network has fallen to a distant third place with a dismal single-digit rating that puts it only marginally ahead of Fox in household delivery. Add to this CBS' uncertain management future and the defection or ouster of several top executives, as well as its impending lackluster merger with Westinghouse Electric Corp., and the CBS network as we know it could be facing extinction.
"CBS sadly is a rapidly deteriorating asset," said Porter Bibb, an analyst with Ladenburg, Thalman & Co., New York.
CBS' Nielsen rating of 9.5 is a precedent-setting low for a Big 3 network this early in the season. That stacks up, after Week 5, against a 12.1 for NBC, an 11.7 for ABC and a 7.3 for Fox.
In the key demographic of adults 18 to 49, CBS is already the fourth network at a 4.6 rating, behind Fox by a significant margin of 0.6 of a point.
And while all of the Big 4 are down in prime time this season (see Ratings Race, Page 40), CBS' drop is the most precipitous, with Black Rock's lost share points vs. last season greater than the other three nets combined.
Hardest hit have been CBS' new shows, which are down 25% from the network's new show performance last season, according to a new report from Bozell's BJK&E Media Group, New York.
Of the 11 new CBS shows, BJK&E predicts cancellation for eight and only possible survival for the other three, including the massively promoted "Central Park West."
But CBS' problems run much deeper than its new prime-time schedule:
All dayparts are down, including "Late Show With David Letterman," which initially was the late-night leader but now routinely places third.
CBS' once venerable news brand is the current laughingstock among the Big 3. Share is down, and disarray persists five months after the ouster of co-anchor Connie Chung.
The network currently devotes no airtime to major professional sports leagues.
In kids TV, CBS could face the ultimate humiliation of being overtaken this season by fledgling WB Network's new children's lineup.
All of CBS' programming problems have been exacerbated by a distribution system that was weakened by the 1994 loss of several big-market affiliates to Fox. The current affiliate base, which covers about two-thirds of the U.S., could erode further if poor ratings convince more stations to jump to alternatives such as Fox, or even WB and UPN.
There's even speculation that CBS could be thrown into further play, with Westinghouse either selling off pieces of the network or taking on a strategic co-manager to help run it.
"There are going to be important defections of on-air and senior management talent," Mr. Bibb said, "so they will really need to do a strategic partnering with a Viacom or a New World-somebody who has product."
CBS insiders say they have gotten relatively few cues from the Westinghouse transition team, and most expect little action until after CBS' Nov. 16 shareholders meeting.
CBS Broadcast Group President Peter Lund is said to be threatening to leave if he doesn't get the presidency slot, but that puts him in contention with Westinghouse Broadcast Group President Bill Korn.
It's likely that a new news president will be installed to replace current CBS News chief Eric Ober, and new management will be installed in the CBS-owned stations and at CBS Radio.
CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves and CBS Sports President David Kennin are said to be secure and well-regarded, and there are no immediate changes in CBS' network sales, marketing or research organization anticipated.