Trouble at CBS

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated March 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

What’s another term for CBS? How about SOS? Over the last year the erstwhile Tiffany network has come to resemble a sinking ship (deserted by the NFL, abandoned by eight affiliates), but never more so than last week, when respected network president and 30-year veteran Howard Stringer announced he was quitting to helm an upstart media consortium formed by three Baby Bells. CBS chairman Laurence Tisch, whose miserly ways were cited as one reason Stringer jumped ship, acted fast to minimize the loss by naming Stringer’s chief lieutenant, Peter Lund, 54, to succeed him. But this new captain must now find a way to patch the greatly battered network.

”The morale is low. The company isn’t investing in any ventures. So it’s pretty bad timing to lose your top guy,” says Andrew Marcus, a television analyst at Alex Brown & Sons, an investment banking firm. Wall Street does, however, have faith in Lund, reportedly courted by Fox’s Rupert Murdoch for his network’s top spot just a year ago.

Though he’s promised no major shake-ups, Lund will likely try to put the twinkle back in the CBS eye by spritzing the network’s notoriously gray demographics. Currently, the network is loaded with shows such as Murder, She Wrote that do well in the ratings but not with the big-spending MTV, 90210 generation that advertisers prefer. To this end, CBS is reportedly about to sign a deal with Stephen Bochco, the creator of such hip, shaky-camera dramas as NYPD Blue.

Also put into peril by Lund’s ascent is the network’s news division. Unlike Stringer, a newshound who gave the division pet treatment, Lund came up through sales and has no such allegiance. ”[News is] about the only area in TV he’s never worked,” says one top network exec. ”Which means, I think, Connie Chung‘s Eye to Eye and Dan Rather‘s 48 Hours are history.”

If Lund’s strategies work, and he lifts CBS from its No. 3 Nielsen position, it could mean big bucks for Tisch. It’s well known that the network — which one analyst estimates to be worth $5 billion — is for sale. But Tisch is holding out for the right price. Possible suitors include Ted Turner, the Walt Disney Co., Sumner Redstone‘s Viacom Paramount, and even media mogul Barry Diller, whose deal with QVC to buy the network fell through last year but who remains smitten.

”We are in the era of giants, and CBS isn’t one anymore,” says Jay Nelson, an analyst for the investment firm of Brown Brothers Harriman. ”Still, everyone wants to be in the network business. So I think a sale will happen by the end of the year.” So much for smooth sailing.