For First Time In A Long While, CBS Sees Opportunity To Pass NBC

by , May 18, 2004, 12:00 AM
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When CBS President Leslie Moonves met the press for a pre-upfront briefing a few weeks ago, his intention to seek double-digit CPM increases made instant news. Lost in the flurry of coverage was the fact that, for the first time in recent memory, CBS was poised to move into what could be a radically different television landscape.

NBC would be moving into the upfront without its top 18-49 drawcard, "Friends." There was no heir apparent to the must-see TV reign of "Cosby" and "Seinfeld" that has helped NBC stay on top for 20 years. With the exception of "The Apprentice," it seemed that the other networks' prediction of a new ballgame in prime time were finally coming true.

Whether that's true won't be known until the end of August and into September, when NBC begins its new season after the Olympics end and CBS and the other networks do what they can to pluck the Peacock. NBC, which has surged in the ratings during this month's sweeps, isn't ready to roll over and play dead--it made that clear in yesterday's upfront presentation.

At this afternoon's upfront presentation, CBS will make its case to advertisers and agencies about why it should benefit from a "Friendless" NBC. Although NBC only replaced five shows for the fall schedule--along with seven other shows waiting in the wings--it's expected that CBS will replace as few or even fewer when its slate is announced later this morning.

Media researchers and buyers say that CBS is in perhaps the best shape of any network going into the new season. "Everybody Loves Raymond" will come back for its final season, although for a less-than-full run of episodes. "Survivor" is one of reality TV's old guard, a dependable ratings performer on a tough night of television Thursdays. Its two CSI hits --the original and "CSI: Miami"--will be joined next year by "CSI: New York," starring Gary Sinise.

"They've got some really good stuff to build off of," says Kristi Argyilan, executive vice president and director of media at Hill, Holliday in Boston. "They should have a very good season."

It's the tried-and-true that works for CBS, which is as strong in dramas as many of the other networks are weak, with "Cold Case," "Without a Trace," and one of this year's surprises, "Joan of Arcadia." All are expected back on the schedule.

"I think they've certainly made strides. I do think they're going into this season with the momentum of knowns and proven properties. That's always a plus," says Susan Hajny, broadcast research manager at GSD&M. "But CBS' strength is still total viewers because of its older audience skew. Although it's reaching parity with NBC in the adults 18-49, that still is limited to a handful of shows. They need to grow that list of shows if they're going to change that perception."

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