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The Tiffany Network Heals Its Cracks in New Fall Season

October 20, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Maybe it’s the cozy slogan. After all, a catchphrase worked for ``must-see″ NBC.

CBS sought to ``welcome home″ television viewers this fall to a place they had avoided lately, promising lots of old friends would stop by.

Enough people have responded to make CBS’s comeback, together with the relatively desultory performance of its rivals, the story of the young television season.

``We’re feeling that progress is being made,″ a cautious CBS Entertainment president, Leslie Moonves, said last week. ``But crowing? No, hardly. You won’t hear that out of me.″

The memories of last season, when CBS finished a third among the big three networks with disastrous programming choices like the megahyped ``Central Park West,″ are too fresh in his mind.

Moonves, brought in after the network bottomed out, dreaded opening his newspaper each week: When the top 20 shows in the Nielsen ratings were displayed, CBS frequently had as few as one.

In last week’s Nielsens, however, CBS nabbed nine of the top 20 spots. The network has finished a solid second behind ratings champ NBC during the TV season’s first month, and its ratings are up over a comparable period last year, while NBC, ABC and Fox all are down. The declines are most marked at ABC and Fox, where early signs of panic are evident.

CBS banked on familiar faces like Bill Cosby and Rhea Perlman to anchor new sitcoms this fall, and both are among the new season’s top performers _ and that’s before Ted Danson’s show ``Ink″ begins Monday night. Weekend shows like ``Walker, Texas Ranger″ and the new drama ``Early Edition″ also are hits.

The network, traditionally a favorite among older viewers, abandoned last year’s strategy of trying to copy Fox’s success with the young crowd, which had conjured up the disconcerting look of a senior struggling into spandex.

``They might have called last year’s (slogan), `Go away,‴ media analyst Betsy Frank said.

``Welcome Home″ beseeches those traditional viewers to return, and even the network’s house ads, free of quick cutaways and jarring graphics, are soothing. If young people want to tune in, too, so much the better.

``He’s turned the ship around,″ Bill Croasdale, president of network broadcasting at Western International Media, said of Moonves. ``He’s not attracted the audience that the advertisers want to attract, but advertisers are taking a second look at CBS.″

Croasdale, who works with networks to set rates for advertisers, noted that CBS still needs one of its shows, like ``Pearl″ or ``Everybody Loves Raymond,″ to become a hit with the younger viewers advertisers crave.

CBS is expected to score a coup Monday when the organizers of the Grammys, who considered abandoning their 22-year broadcast outlet, re-up for another five years. The network also is talking about trying to win back National Football League broadcasts.

CBS’s success this year has come largely at the expense of ABC, which has slid into third place.

ABC’s ratings are down every night except for Thursday, which already was weak, according to an analysis by the BJK&E Media Group. Michael J. Fox’s ``Spin City″ is ABC’s only breakout hit, while the public appears to be tiring of past favorites like ``Roseanne,″ ``Coach″ and ``Lois & Clark.″

``In some instances, they stayed with some shows for too long, while in other instances the creative product has begun to dry up,″ Croasdale said. ``Coach″ was sent on hiatus last week, along with two other shows in ABC’s struggling Saturday night lineup.

ABC defends itself by pointing to its relative strength among younger viewers.

Only Fox stands between ABC and the network ratings basement. At least ABC hasn’t suffered the indignities of Fox, which saw its now-canceled game show ``Big Deal″ beaten in the ratings by a Ross Perot infomercial.

Almost faster than viewers could notice them, Fox already has axed four new fall shows; only baseball and ``The X-Files″ has kept the network breathing this fall.

Fox also is talking about a major shift in focus. After building itself with young viewers interested in sex-soaked soaps like ``Melrose Place,″ the network sought in the past two years to appeal to all age groups. Now, it’s considering a return to the youthful emphasis, in a sort of ``welcome home″ of its own.

While NBC is expected to keep its ratings crown largely on the strength of its Thursday night lineup, some analysts worry that except for the time-slot blessed ``Suddenly Susan,″ the network is failing to develop new shows.

Unlike some of its rivals, CBS is responding to its newfound success by showing the stability its veteran viewers look for.

``We have to be very patient _ no sudden moves on our part about dumping a night or dumping a program that we believe in,″ Moonves said. ``Patience is the watchword.″