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Is CBS going OVER THE TOP?

Not according to CBS' president and CEO Les Moonves. "I feel this way: If we're not doing something controversial, that makes somebody unhappy, then we're not doing our job."

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 22, 2003

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - You know it's a new day in TV land when the president of the Tiffany Network faces reporters to take credit for Hitler and talk about sexually transmitted diseases. But that's the shape of TV in the 21st century, where even the most successful broadcasters must deal in reality TV and made-for-the-screen events sure to draw a crowd in a 500-channel television universe.

That's also why top CBS cheerleader Les Moonves could face a crowd of reporters here at the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour and tout the seven Emmy nominations for its Hitler miniseries while insisting Big Brother 4 contestant Scott Weintraub was ejected from the reality game show July 12 for his violent tantrum - which included tossing chairs - not because he had genital warts.

"I feel this way: if we're not doing something controversial, that makes somebody unhappy, then we're not doing our job," said Moonves Sunday, fielding questions on the controversy over CBS seeming to offer a movie of the week and book deal to secure news interviews with Pfc. Jessica Lynch and public outcry over its proposed Beverly Hillbillies reality show. "When we discover things about people, we take them out of the house. Big Brother is a social experiment, and it's worked."

CBS also faced questions on what seemed to be the show's first-ever onscreen sexual encounter - between soon-to-be evicted contestant Amanda Craig and David Lane - which was only hinted at during the network's telecast, but seen more explicitly by those viewing the show online.

"I don't think things are out of control at all," said Arnold Shapiro, executive producer of the show, denying rumors the network considered airing a more explicit version of Craig and Lane's encounter last week. "Whatever they did under the covers - and I didn't see it - it was a one-time only thing, and she left."

Among the most important announcements: Moonves confirmed rumors the network is considering spinoff possibilities for Everybody Loves Raymond (star Ray Romano has hinted he may stop the show after next season), including one featuring Brad Garrett as baleful brother Robert; the network's fall season officially starts Sept. 22, though Survivor: Pearl Islands premieres the previous Thursday (Sept. 18); James Brolin will play former President Ronald Reagan to Judy Davis' Nancy in a miniseries dubbed the Reagans.

"We haven't asked Barbra Streisand what she thinks," cracked Moonves about Brolin's superstar wife, a longtime liberal activist. "We'll have to live with that."

Of course, the most important producer to CBS - and network TV in general - was nowhere to be seen. Jerry Bruckheimer, an executive producer on CSI, CSI: Miami, The Amazing Race and Without a Trace, is also bringing the new show Cold Case to CBS (along with new shows on Fox and the WB). But he didn't show.

Bruckheimer, who also produced the hit summer films Bad Boys 2 and Pirates of the Carribbean, has influenced CBS and rival TV networks into advancing a deluge of similar-looking, law enforcement-themed shows for fall. And, according to those who run his TV shows, his influence is a constant.

"I just had a situation where he just had a stack of (CSI) scripts and he read them flying back from England," said Jonathan Littman, a Bruckheimer Television executive who serves as producer on many of his shows. "When we landed, we had detailed conversations about all of them. He doesn't want to be out of the process."

CBS executives also chided reporters for exacerbating the industry's focus on young viewers, revealing the results of a survey of 1,017 advertising professionals which found that most of those sampled actually targeted consumers age 25 to 54. The news heartened the older-skewing CBS network, which once struggled to attract viewers age 18 to 49 - the demographic rivals ABC, NBC and Fox often say is most important.

"Perception plays a big part in this market," said David Poltrack, head of research at CBS, showing a chart indicating journalists wrote three times as many stories about ABC's spy drama Alias than CBS military drama JAG, though JAG is more popular with the older group. "You have to balance your coverage."

To that end, peruse Ted Danson's gracious comments on returning to CBS, which delayed putting his sitcom Becker on its fall schedule until it realized its new comedy starring Robert Klein, The Stones, wasn't yet ready for prime time.

"(This fall), there will probably be a slight attitude of, "What are they going to do - cancel us?' It's sort of freeing, in a way," said Danson, noting CBS ordered 13 new episodes of the show. "But I'm not complaining: I got five years at an amazing salary with sweet people and great writing and now I get 13 more (episodes). What's to be sardonic about?"

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