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LOS ANGELES-"American Gothic," a creepy, surreal Friday night drama CBS screened for station managers at last week's annual affiliate conference, demonstrates the direction the network is heading in as it tries to rebuild prime-time and news programming momentum heading into next season.

In one scene, a psychotic small-town police chief stalks his next victim while menacingly whistling the upbeat theme of a classic CBS series of old, "The Andy Griffith Show."

"It's certainly the riskiest new show of the season," acknowledged Dave Poltrack, CBS exec VP-research and planning. And the affiliate body appeared to agree, groaning at horrific, bloody scenes and shaking their heads during the pilot's closing credits.

Nonetheless, CBS and its affiliates put on a unified front last week as they embraced change, which includes CBS' Entertainment President Peter Tortorici's radical re-engineering of the network's prime-time schedule with edgy new shows like "American Gothic." Also ahead are big changes at CBS News.

CBS News President Eric Ober announced the network, which recently moved from its odd co-anchor setup back to a single-anchor evening newscast, would now embrace a "team" approach that will use an "A-team" of correspondents under team leader Dan Rather.

Also, CBS News announced changes in "CBS This Morning," which will adopt a live studio audience format that will be based at times in theaters in various markets throughout the country.

At the meeting, CBS appeared to have the necessary support from its affiliates to make these changes. Although network management sidestepped persistent questions about a potential merger or sale of the network, the affiliates pledged their support to newly installed CBS Broadcast Group President Peter Lund.

CBS in the next few weeks will also begin getting support from an unlikely source: Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.). The House speaker recently cut his first network on-air promo spots for CBS' "Murphy Brown" series. The spots play off the show's ongoing feuds with Washington leaders.

In an ironic reference to the past year's tragedies, one of the concluding notes of the affiliate meeting was a performance by an Oklahoma City elementary school class, which sang "This Land Is Your Land."

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