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CBS Tops Daytime--for 208th Week in a Row : Television: ‘The major ingredient to our success is that we have kept our schedule steady and constant,’ says Lucy Johnson, vice president of daytime programs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thursday marked the fourth straight year, the 208th unwavering week in a row, that CBS has reigned as the top-rated network in daytime television.

Even though the overall number of viewers watching network TV during the day gradually continues to shrink with the changing times--more women are in the work force today and more viewers videotape their favorite soap operas or watch cable--CBS has managed an unprecedented run.

CBS, which also has been No. 1 in prime time for the past two seasons, currently averages a 5.7 rating during daytime, the weekday period from mid-morning through early afternoon, compared to 4.9 for ABC and 3 for NBC (each ratings point represents 931,000 households).

“The major ingredient to our success is that we have kept our schedule steady and constant,” said Lucy Johnson, who took over as vice president of daytime programs for CBS in 1989.

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“We did not change time periods of shows. We worked hard with our affiliate stations to keep them intact. That’s something ABC wasn’t able to do as easily,” Johnson said.

In daytime television, it’s easy for viewers to form a habit--or an addiction, depending upon your point of view. Contestants have been playing “The Price Is Right” for 21 years. “Guiding Light,” which like all network soap operas broadcasts a fresh episode five times a week, 52 weeks a year, has been on CBS for 41 years. “As the World Turns” has been on for 35 years. “The Young and the Restless,” daytime’s top-rated program, has been running for 20 years.

“There’s a lot of history there,” Johnson said. “That’s the beauty of the form. People invest in the long-range experience. People often start watching a soap because their mother watched it, or they grew up with the characters. You basically have 30 contract players for soaps, and to ask a viewer to memorize and get to know each one is a tall order.

“So it takes a long time for the audience to drift away. Although when things aren’t in your favor, it takes a long time for the audience to come back.”

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CBS has done the best job of preventing its affiliated stations from pulling or rescheduling the network’s daytime fare in favor of syndicated programs that potentially can earn the stations larger profits.

“Once a major portion of affiliates start to rearrange their schedules to suit their own purpose, it becomes a disintegration of the network schedule as we have laid it out, and you never know where your audience is coming from. We have managed to maintain consistency,” Johnson said.

Even so, come September, CBS will continue a pattern of disenfranchisement that has already occurred at NBC and ABC. As a concession for keeping CBS’ schedule intact, the network will give an hour of daytime--the 9 a.m. hour on the West Coast, now occupied by “The New Family Feud Challenge"--back to its affiliates to program on their own with such popular syndicated shows as “Donahue,” “Sally Jessy Raphael” and “Regis & Kathie Lee.”

“That’s because our stations want to earn more advertising revenue,” Johnson conceded, “because they don’t get as much commercial time when we provide the show. There’s a great deal of competition from syndication, from shows that people want to watch.”

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Nonetheless, Johnson does not fear losing the network franchise anytime soon, although daytime viewing of the three major networks has dropped from an average of 14.2 million homes in 1988 to 12.6 million today. For one thing, advertisers like daytime TV because they know exactly who they are reaching. For another, a soap opera--the backbone of daytime TV--costs as much as $1 million a week to produce, a cost too steep for syndicators to match at this juncture.

“The syndicated competition really hits more in the morning and late afternoon,” Johnson said. “Only in a couple instances are these alternative programs competing with our soap operas.”

Johnson’s biggest challenge, she said, is to bring young people to daytime television. The network already tours college campuses with its soap stars in an effort to hook future viewers while they’re still young.

“We’re watching daytime television change before our eyes,” Johnson said. “I don’t think three, four, five years ago anyone saw how strong syndication would become. But as a network we still have the greatest reach, the largest number of stations, and the consistency of product. To an advertiser, that’s a plus. We’re aware of the shrinking audience, but there’s no reason to push the panic button yet.”

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