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NEW CBS ENTERTAINMENT CHIEF PLANS TO ESCAPE THE NIELSEN CELLAR

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Jeff Sagansky, a senior program executive at NBC when it was rising from third to first in prime time ratings, doesn't consider a similar rise impossible for CBS, third for the last two seasons.

"I think that . . . CBS has got the same challenge that NBC faced in the early '80s," says Sagansky, named as CBS Entertainment president this week and now facing the considerable task of helping it escape the Nielsen cellar."I know, having done that, that it is doable," he says. "A lot of people say, `Oh, it's impossible.' But I know that's not the case."

At 37, picked from his well-paid post as president of Tri-Star Pictures, Sagansky was NBC's vice president for series in 1983-85, and helped develop "Cheers," the top-rated "The Cosby Show" and "Miami Vice."

In succeeding Kim LeMasters, who resigned as CBS' chief programmer Nov. 30 after two years, he now faces ratings combat with his former NBC boss, Brandon Tartikoff, who still is NBC Entertainment president; with ABC; with the upstart Fox network and with the ever-growing cable monster.

With independent stations and videocassette players also battling for viewers' attention, Sagansky has his work cut out. As he notes, "There's a lot more competition now than when NBC" made a comeback.

His philosophy for dealing with it all:

"I think it's a case of really targeting your development for specific time slots and having a sense of showmanship, of putting shows on that intrigue viewers, that make a splash, that capture their attention.

"The hardest thing to do now is to sort of cut through all the media clutter with a new show."

Sagansky's first task will be to consider a midseason schedule, see which new series might replace fading ones, and generally ready CBS for the February ratings "sweeps."

That's one of four key periods of intense audience measurements each year in all TV markets. Local stations use the results to set advertising rates.

After sweeps preparations, Sagansky starts inspecting series pilots and other programs, preparing for his first fall campaign. He also has the weak-rated "The Pat Sajak Show" in late night to worry about.

Despite the task facing Sagansky, his boss, CBS Broadcast Group President Howard Stringer, is optimistic. "We're feeling fairly strong now," he said, but he won't forecast whether Sagansky can help CBS avoid a third season as third in prime time ratings.

"I don't want to put labels on it," he said. "I don't want to put pressure on Jeff. The fact is that we preach patience more than we practice it."

The TV division of Columbia Pictures - Columbia owns Tri-Star - makes network programming, including CBS' "Designing Women" and "The Famous Teddy Z." But Stringer said no concessions or deals for future series were made for Sagansky to be let out of his Tri-Star contract, which had a year to run.

In the course of negotiations with Columbia, he said, "all those ... who were new to Columbia began to find out how much business we're doing, and the more they found that out the less difficult it became."

Stringer called the talks "an amicable series of discussions. We were in a hurry, but they didn't have to be."

Sagansky cheerfully admits that many of his Hollywood friends thought he had taken leave of his senses when he agreed to become the third CBS Entertainment president in as many years.

"But it was certainly the biggest challenge that I'd ever been offered, and I didn't want to run away from it," he said by phone from his CBS office in Los Angeles. "All my friends in the movie business said, `Don't leave,' and all my friends in the television business said, `This is exactly the job you should be doing.' So it was sort of split.

"But yes, a lot of people thought I was nuts to do it."