After months of only fair ratings by this season's new array of innovative, break-the-mold, prime-time programming, CBS Entertainment President Kim LeMasters says the network is ready to seek a broader audience and "to become the king of comedy again."
In his first major news conference since he became the network's programming chief in November, LeMasters--credited as the network force behind such critically acclaimed but only moderately rated new shows as "Frank's Place," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tour of Duty"--voiced a decidedly mixed reaction to the current season, saying the network needs more laughs, more action and more mass-appeal fare in order to maintain its No. 2 position against third-rated ABC.
Addressing national television critics Thursday at the network's semi-annual press tour in Redondo Beach, LeMasters added his voice to the recent debate over "dramedies" by his counterparts at NBC and ABC, Brandon Tartikoff and Brandon Stoddard. LeMasters said the new program form--those half-hour, laugh-trackless blends of drama and comedy that include "Frank's Place," ABC's "Hooperman" and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" and NBC's "Days and Nights of Molly Dodd"--"should not become the meat and potatoes" of CBS' menu.
His opinion fell somewhere in between that of Tartikoff--who called the dramedy a "camel--a horse by committee" and tartly suggested that their staffs are "not really funny comedy writers and not very good drama writers"--and that of Stoddard, who supports the genre and said it is working at ABC.
LeMasters professed bemusement over Tartikoff's comments--"It's ironic, because he's been one of the leaders in putting the dramedy on the air"--but said there had been "enough Brandon-bashing" this week.
Although unwilling to knock the genre, he said CBS will not devise new dramedies for next season but will focus on correcting what he called its "imbalanced schedule." "My remarks are specific to CBS," he noted.
On the more general issue of CBS' commitment to "quality television"--a term defined by shows such as LeMasters' pet project, "Frank's Place"--LeMasters almost seemed to contradict himself.
"The era of the least objectionable program is over," he said firmly. He said CBS should not feature only shows that "only Socrates would get," but he vowed that the network would never let ratings and demographics keep it from nurturing quality television fare.
Almost in the same breath, however, LeMasters said CBS must move away from presenting only "highbrow fare," and he pointed to the encouraging performance so far of the network's new "High Mountain Rangers," which LeMasters called a "blue-collar, workmanlike show." The series, which stars Robert Conrad, debuted Jan. 2 and ran a strong second in its Saturday-night time period last week.
"This thing I'm feeling about television is, we have to present more shows that people want to see," LeMasters said. "I know it sounds simple, but it's true."
LeMasters noted that the network's current schedule, top-heavy with hour dramas as a counter-programming effort against No. 1-network NBC's comedy-dominated lineup, needs more comedy--both the sophisticated sort that was the pride of CBS in the 1970s, such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Bob Newhart Show," and the broad-appeal kind. He cited both NBC's hip "Golden Girls" and ABC's decidely un-hip "Who's the Boss?" as shows that could benefit the CBS schedule.
Among pending comedy plans: LeMasters said the previously announced, as-yet-untitled comedy starring Mary Tyler Moore would be ready for the fall schedule. Other potential series in development are "The Dictator," starring Christopher Lloyd as the deposed dictator of a tiny country now running a gas station in the United States; a show about an advertising agency in Omaha; and "Trial and Error," about two Latino characters, one a lawyer, the other a T-shirt salesman.