''Welcome Home'' campaign highlights classic TV hits, including Bill Cosby and ''I Love Lucy''

By Dan Snierson
August 23, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

”A zebra shouldn’t change its stripes,” says CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves, ”nor should it want to. We want to be what we are.”

Or were. For the second time in as many years, CBS is pulling a 180 in an effort to redefine the network and lure a particular group of viewers (or target audience) to its programming — in this case, the same 25- to 54-year-old demographic it alienated with last season’s botched attempt at grabbing the younger, Snapple-swilling set with Melrose ersatz Central Park West and Friends-lite Can’t Hurry Love. In other words, everything new is old again.

The network’s massive ”Welcome Home” campaign, which kicked off in June and will hit full stride around Labor Day, centers on a series of promos with a three-part strategy: to trumpet the network’s rich history (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy); to show off its current stable of baby-boomer-friendly stars (Bill Cosby, Candice Bergen, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Cybill Shepherd, Don Johnson), several of whom snagged megabuck deals this year; and to create a nonthreatening and wholesome place that will hopefully attract middle-American viewers without repelling coastal urbanites. ”We’ve developed a very conscious tone,” notes CBS marketing executive VP George F. Schweitzer. ”Friendly, not condescending, invitational respect for the viewer.”

Schweitzer is the first to admit that CBS’ aggressive campaign was inspired by a rival. ”[We have] a need for a stronger brand identity, and NBC has done that very well,” he says. ”Our world has become more complicated, and more channels means more confusion for the viewer.”

Such image overhauls don’t come cheaply: CBS will buy $50 million-plus of cable TV, radio, and magazine ads, and use about $400 million worth of airtime on its own network this year. The results from self-plugging are debatable, though. ”On-air promos only reach the viewers CBS already has,” reminds media analyst Whitey Chapin, ”and that’s not enough.” Which is one reason for the cautious, albeit positive, early word from Madison Avenue. ”The slogan works for what they are trying to do — they need people to come back to CBS,” notes Chapin. ”Now they need to do their job on their programming.”

In Peoria, however, the campaign appears to be playing well: CBS’ stations across the country think the campaign sends the right message. Even more encouraging is the apparent loosening of the company’s purse strings — notoriously tight under former CBS Inc. CEO Larry Tisch. ”Nobody thinks we’re going to turn around like a PT boat,” says Howard Kennedy of Omaha affiliate KMTV. ”But we might be turning like a midsize battleship.” Adds Dean Greve of Seattle affiliate KSTW: ”For the longest time the country has been saying ‘Let’s get back to the way things used to be.’ This campaign really strikes a chord.” Come fall, we’ll find out if Cosby and Co. can carry a tune.