CBS Chief Calls Programming Key to the Cable Challenge

Times Staff Writer

The speech was entitled “The Return of Network Television,” but it might as well have been called “The Return of CBS"--as the struggling network’s leader, Howard Stringer, cited the success of “Lonesome Dove” in cajoling TV producers to see beyond the network’s tarnished image.

In his first formal address to the Hollywood TV production industry since taking over as CBS Broadcast Group president nine months ago, Stringer exhorted the networks Monday to compete with cable by venturing outside the mainstream for innovative projects--as he believes CBS did with “Lonesome Dove"--and urged Hollywood’s producers not to defect to cable when looking for a safe haven for high-quality television shows.

Stringer, speaking at an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences luncheon at the Beverly Hilton, pointed to CBS’ acclaimed eight-hour Western from Motown Productions and Qintex as evidence that the networks can compete with cable if they provide a fresh alternative. With its February broadcast, “Lonesome Dove” became the third-highest-rated miniseries since 1984 and vaulted CBS back into the running for second place in the seasonal ratings race.

“Is it a coincidence that ‘Lonesome Dove’ was produced outside the standard network-studio channels?” Stringer said. “Isn’t it possible that Motown and Qintex didn’t know the stereotypes, cliches and compromises with which we are all so comfortable, because they’re relative newcomers to the nuances of our collaborative enterprise?”

Stringer said he thinks network TV still beats cable for quality and variety.


“Consider the cable spectrum closely, and you’ll find that the amount of truly original programming runs the gamut from A all the way to B--all right, to C,” he said. “No cable network with the exception of ESPN can match the demographic profile of the broadcast networks in prime time.”

Added Stringer: “Wider choices are not necessarily better choices. . . . We may be witnessing something not unlike some pro sports’ expansion, where talent can be diluted to mediocrity.”

Stringer attempted to assure his listeners that CBS plans to patch up its admittedly strained relationship with Hollywood’s producers.

“We were to Hollywood, I was told, what the Ayatollah is to Islam--impossible to ignore, but difficult to love,” he said. “We’ve tried to change all that. . . . The welcome mat is out for all talent, whether warm or wonderful or weird or wacky.”