CBS’ short-order fall

CBS/Broadcast Group prez Howard Stringer defended his network’s shift to short orders on all new series next season, contending the practice has less to do with lack of faith in the shows than healthy realism about network TV economics in the 1990s.

Picking up and running with comments from CBS Entertainment topper Jeff Sagansky, Stringer also weighed in on the hottest topic at this year’s press tour — TV violence — saying the broadcast webs have taken a leadership position on the issue “even though … the networks are least culpable” and there’s “less violence on the network air now than there ever was.”

As reported when fall lineups were announced in May, CBS’ decision not to order more than eight episodes of any new series spurred grumbling from the production community, though Stringer said he has no sense that the web has lost out on any properties because of the strategy.

The approach makes sense economically and creatively, he said. CBS has “recognized that television’s a year-round business” and that the shorter orders will allow the network to air more new shows during the summer and off periods, in the process fostering diversity. Short orders won’t prompt the network to pull the plug prematurely on new shows, he said. In terms of violence, Stringer said he wasn’t seeking to duck the networks’ responsibility but rather to put it in perspective. He said that allowing Congress to impose outside censorship could prevent the networks from tackling important topics that touch upon violent themes.

“You don’t want to replace one situation with another that’s even worse,” he said, calling censorship “an ugly trail to track.” Critics, he added, shouldn’t engage in a body count without recognizing how violence is depicted. “To walk away from a show because it has violence is to equate ‘Cliffhanger’ with ‘Julius Caesar,’ ” Stringer said.

A consciousness-raising summit on TV violence next month shouldn’t be viewed cynically, he said. As for curbing other areas, such as sexuality, Stringer cited the success of “Sleepless in Seattle” as proof that “romance and grappling are not synonymous.”

Turning to one of his favorite themes, the CBS exec called for detente between various TV factions. Friction between network and cable interests, he said, are “the sort of mano-a-mano that makes no sense to me,” with the parties placed at odds with each other by government-imposed regulations.

The exec wouldn’t rule out expansion into cable — an area CBS has shunned in recent years — as part of negotiations over retransmission consent.

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