New management... new attitude... delivering customers more effectively.
In the Winter of '96. Leslie Moonves, the newly installed President of CBS Entertainment, addressed one of the finest groups of young minds in the business... his hand picked, top drawer, dynamic programmers and schedulers. He issued the ultimate challenge. "We must be quality in front of and behind the camera. That is how we will become #1." This would not be easy. In most of the 212 markets in America, CBS was dead last among the Big Three. This daunting task had been made even harder by the entry of Fox and Cable just a few years before.
At this time CBS's Monday schedule had only moderate viewer interest and their Friday programs had mild interest. Everywhere else, CBS was nowhere in sight. Locally, CBS affiliates were becoming harder and harder to find. FOX had bought up a number of old, reliable CBS affiliates. In Milwaukee, CBS went from channel 6 to 58. In Phoenix, from channel 10 to 5, but did not run the typical 10PM newscast. Rather, they opted for a five minute newscast and ran re-runs of "Sienfeld" because they could not get a big enough lead-in from the network during prime time to build a solid 10PM news rating. The once proud world of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite had fallen on hard times. With all of this in mind, Moonves' inspiration and talent had to provide a miracle.
Just a few short weeks ago, CBS launched their new season. But not without a hitch. Bill Cosby had been coaxed to come back into television and be a part of the powerful CBS Monday night lineup. Ted Danson, another top performer at NBC decided to come over to the Eye network. Rea Pearlman decided to come on board. With top programs like "Murphy Brown", "The Nanny", "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman", "Walker, Texas Ranger" and the new hit, "Touched By An Angel", the newcomers would help bring back the golden look to CBS. But the Danson show (INK, co-starring his wife, Mary Steenburgen) hit a snag. It wasn't funny. So a new producer was found and a host of new writers were added.
You see, prime time is important because it brings in viewers. The more viewers that watch, the higher the rating. The higher the rating, the larger the show. The larger the show, the more money local stations can charge for available commercial positions in and around prime time, including the Prime access period (the time period just before Prime Time) and the Late News. This in turn builds a powerful news feed to late night (in this case, David Letterman) which leads to the early morning show (CBS This Morning).
Recently, Esquire magazine wrote about the dynamics of Moonves. In that article, they named a young and talented, 29 year old graduate from the University of Wisconsin, the "Wunderkind". In person, Kelly Kahl, VP, scheduling for CBS, is a polite, interesting, bright young person and obviously born for this role. So we talked with him to get the insight on how they went about building this year's prime time schedule.
Before development started this year, CBS needed to reach a point of stability. The past year had been a rough one. Central Park West was the cornerstone of the past regime's scheduling. The failure of this program to catch on created a total freefall for the network. They took a close look at the type of shows and audience that built CBS. While they knew that everyone sought a large, young viewer base, they knew CBS's loyal audience was a bit more mature. They looked at more traditional fare, such as "Diagnosis Murder" starring Dick Van Dyke, to get stability in the schedule. Stars with quality in "front of the camera" and producers with "quality behind the camera" became essential. They attracted producers who could deliver the goods. And according to Moonves, it was important to get people "who understand that episode #10 must be as good as the pilot episode".
Kahl gives us further insight on this "Anatomy of Building Prime Time". "Evaluation was the first step. We knew there were nights when we had problems. Then we looked at our new pilots. Some were good, some bad. There were some surprises and some disappointments. Then we had to look at where each of the pilots we liked could go. Leslie has told us that each series we schedule has to be a building block. Our standard is quality. Our goal is diversity. We want television we can be proud of and that the affiliates and the audience can feel good about."WE LOOKED AT MONDAY FIRST:
"We wanted to make Monday dominant again, like it had been in the past.", Kahl continued. "That is where we put "Cosby", followed by "Ink", to be followed by "Murphy Brown", by "Cybill" and by "Chicago Hope". We wanted to get "Cosby" and "Danson" to lead it off to pick up male support before football started on ABC." But, "Ink" was not ready for Mondays as the season started. They threw all the past episodes away and filled that time slot with "Pearl", originally scheduled for Wednesday evenings.
WEDNESDAY WAS NEXT: Kahl reasoned that by putting "Cosby" on Mondays, it freed up "The Nanny". "We all felt that comedy had to be built somewhere other than on Monday nights. Wednesday looked attractive as a target because "Ellen" on ABC was not doing that well. "Wings" on NBC was on its trailing legs. And "Nanny" had been run on Wednesday evenings successfully in the summers. Testing on the Rea Pearlman show "Pearl" was outstanding. "We looked to place it alongside "Nanny". We reasoned both shows were about strong women. And that would fit the building block theory."
"Almost Perfect" was brought back from the previous season. "Everyone loves Nancy Travis", Kahl added. "Leslie believes that we have a major television star just waiting to break out. And this brings another strong female character to the night. "Pearl" should provide "Almost Perfect" with a decent lead-in." Next is a new Stephen Bochco vehicle "Public Morals". It will be one of the most talked-about shows of the season." It begins a new long-term exclusive relationship between Bochco and CBS. Remember what Moonves said at the beginning..."quality behind the camera". He added, "What Bochco did for drama in "NYPD Blue", he does for comedy in "Public Morals"." Completing the evening will be "EZ Streets", a gritty new crime drama created by Paul Haggis, the Emmy winning producer of "thirtysomething" and "Walker, Texas Ranger".NEXT BLOCK... SUNDAYS:
The next move was on Sunday. "Touched By An Angel" was tested on Sunday evenings in March, and on the day of the test, it finished in the Top Ten that week. More important, it propelled a movie to become #2 for that week. As for decades, "60 Minutes" will begin the evening. But the key to the evening is "Touched". It can provide the power for the entire evening. The"CBS Sunday Movie" will lock down the evening.
REPLACING TOUCHED: According to Kahl, "The overall strategy of CBS is to have improvement. The goal is to become more competitive. If you move "Touched" to Sunday, a new show has to replace it on Saturday. "Early Edition" tested very, very well and touched a lot of the same strings "Touched By An Angel" did. It may even have a broader audience than "Touched" in that time period. It has an attractive young male lead in Kyle Chandler (Homefront) who may become America's newest heart throb. It is important to go back to our initial strategy as we build prime time programming at the network. First was to strengthen the nights CBS already does well (Saturday, Sundays and Mondays). And second, we have to become more competitive on the other evenings." "Early Edition" will lead off the evening, followed by Jane Seymour's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and then by Chuck Norris' "Walker, Texas Ranger".THURSDAYS WE BUILD:
"Diagnosis Murder" has a loyal audience and in a counter programming move, from Friday to Thursday, Kahl placed the Dick Van Dyke vehicle. He stated, "It will be against "Friends" and "Single Guy". We get an older, more traditional audience which will keep CBS in the households watching television game (HUT levels)." As Moonves stated, "Dick Van Dyke is a perfect Thursday star. He is a CBS icon. And, the program is produced by the legendary Fred Silverman." In the next spot, "Moloney" follows with a similar theme and feel of "Diagnosis", thus hopefully carrying the same audience through the second hour. To anchor the evening, the old reliable "48 Hours" takes its place, pitted against "E.R.", the NBC behemoth.
AS WELL AS TUESDAYS: "Tuesdays needed to be counter-programmed", stated Kahl. "Promised Land", with the popular Gerald McRaney, a most popular star on CBS with eight hit seasons of "Simon & Simon" and four more years with "Major Dad", gives us a great lead. That's the quality in front of the camera. The quality behind the camera on this series is Martha Williamson, the woman who has been executive producer of "Touched By An Angel" since day one. This is classic CBS family adventure and as Leslie says, "a show that celebrates the American spirit and is a great counter to two urban comedies. It will be a perfect lead-in for our "CBS Tuesday Movie".FRIDAYS ARE GREAT:
"Dave's World" moves into a new time period to lead Friday's. Harry Anderson's take on a Miami columnist will be an excellent lead-in for the new David Letterman Worldwide Pants production company vehicle "Everybody Loves Raymond" starring standup comedian Ray Romano. And for those who want to remember how good television was in the good old days, you've got it in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", starring Scott Bakula and an exciting new star, Maria Bello. It's smart, sexy and today. "It should provide a good lead-in for last year's smash, "Nash Bridges" starring Don Johnson." According to Kahl, "It was the new #1 new drama of the year, beating "Homicide" five weeks in a row."
AND THERE'S MORE: There are a host of original movies and mini-series planned for CBS this season. "The Titanic" certainly is one and the other big mini-series is "In Cold Blood", a new adaptation of Truman Capote's novel starring Anthony Edwards (of "E.R.") and Eric Roberts. Jane Seymour will star in a movie "Spin", and according to Kahl, there will be a new "Dallas Reunion" movie. But the bets for the biggest movie of the year will be the debut of Christopher Reeves in "Snakes and Ladders", scheduled for November.
This exciting schedule means that furniture dealers throughout the country now have a hope for placing their advertising in front of an audience that will absolutely buy their product. The old, reliable CBS appears to be heading in the right direction. And it is a direction furniture dealers can support. When you get ready to place that business with your local affiliate, even as early as November, remember how CBS positioned itself and why it is an important consideration today. And, if you don't buy ahead for "Snakes and Ladders", you will have missed one of the biggest audiences of the year. This is a perfect vehicle for you to consider.
Lance G. Hanish is the President of Lance Benefield & Co., Inc. Worldwide, a leading marketing communications firm serving home furnishings retailers. Questions on any aspect of television media management or production can be direct to Mr. Hanish care of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org.