Dave to say ‘Eye,’ Sagansky says

CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky said he’s “very confident” that when the smoke clears his network will land David Letterman for a new late night show.

Sagansky, speaking at the twice-annual television critics tour, said CBS officials have been “chasing (Letterman) for six months” and that he felt CBS would be able to reach near-100% clearance on a late night Letterman show, although it currently reaches less than 90% with its “Crime Time After Prime Time” action shows.

Although he declined to discuss terms of the proposed deal, Sagansky said CBS had extended no offer of a guarantee to Letterman regarding clearances and wouldn’t comment on whether the network would indemnify affiliates who broke existing contracts with syndicators in order to carry Letterman “live” (i.e., at 11:30 p.m. in the Pacific and Eastern time zones).

Some reports have indicated that CBS might have to pay a penalty to Letterman based on lower-than-sought clearance levels should the “Late Night” host ended up jumping ship to CBS. Sagansky added that there’s no contingency plan for late night and that a couple of the “Crime Time” hours have been renewed, with plans to run them after a possible Letterman show. NBC has until Friday to respond to CBS’ standing offer of a hefty raise and 11:30 p.m. berth.

As for speculation regarding whether Letterman’s brand of humor would play as well in an earlier time period, Sagansky quipped that his current viewers “don’t take an hour nap” before the show. HUT (homes using TV) levels are significantly lower at 12:30 a.m., and Letterman’s household ratings generally run about 70% lower than those of “The Tonight Show.”

In other areas, CBS is prepping a number of prominent reunion pix –including an “I Spy” vidpic with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp and a follow-up to “The Odd Couple” series starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Ironically, those shows originally aired on NBC and ABC, respectively.

CBS will again offer three or four original summer series, among them “Return to Plum Creek,” a western derived from the Hearst Entertainment movie “Ned Blessing.” Brad Johnson will replace Daniel Baldwin as the lead and Wes Studi (“The Last of the Mohicans”) joins the cast. Bill Wittliff remains the exec producer.

Two CBS series from last summer, “Raven” and “Bodies of Evidence,” have survived into this year.

Sagansky also maintained that networks don’t have to rely excessively on true-crime drama in the telefilm area, a matter of particular concern to critics this time around in the wake of the three-way Amy Fisher assault, which “wasn’t the proudest week I’ve ever spent in network television,” he conceded.

The exec cited a planned miniseries based on Larry McMurtry’s “Buffalo Girls, ” and movies starring James Woods as well as Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as examples of softer-edged longform fare. He also concurred with ABC exex that his network would “never buy (movie) rights of a convicted felon,” as NBC did in the Fisher case.

In terms of scheduling, Sagansky said CBS hasn’t given up critical favorite “Brooklyn Bridge” and that a spring return behind the new Saturday hit “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” was “a possibility.” New series will start turning up in March, but Sagansky said there will be no changes in the Monday lineup this season and maintained that any losses in that franchise are more than compensated for by the improved performance on Fridays.

The web drew a 33 share on Sunday with its two-hour Carol Burnett special, and Sagansky said it’s discussing another series with the star, as well as additional spex. Surprisingly, the big loser in Sunday’s overnights was NBC’s vidpic “Elvis and the Colonel,” which drew an anemic 10 share.

Asked about recently adopted network guidelines regarding TV violence, Sagansky said CBS would hold seminars with producers trying to sensitize them on the subject. He also noted that CBS will be “solidly profitable” this year.

During an earlier CBS News session, division president Eric Ober said at least three major prime time news specials are planned for the coming year, including 30th anniversary spex relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy (a “48 Hours” on the topic followed the release of “JFK”) and the Vietnam War.

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