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CBS Sports prez Pilson exits

Neal Pilson is stepping down as CBS Sports president effective April 11, ending months of speculation over his fate after the network lost the rights to National Football League games to Fox and lost hundreds of millions of dollars in its rights deal with Major League Baseball.

Ironically, part of Pilson’s goals were to stop the network from paying skyrocketing rights fees for sports programming. Unfortunately for CBS, rival networks had different agendas and stepped in with the dollars, leaving CBS affiliates angered and its image tarnished. Besides the loss of the NFL’s National Football Conference to Fox Broadcasting Co., CBS also lost broadcast rights to the NBA to NBC. Baseball was also bad news. The Eye web lost as much as $ 400 million on its $ 1.06 billion, four-year baseball deal. Now ABC and NBC share baseball broadcasts.

While Pilson is exiting sports after eight years, he will stay at CBS as senior vice president, CBS Broadcast Group, a new and still undefined position that CBS Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer said will focus on new business opportunities.

No replacement for Pilson has been named, though Joe Abruzzese, senior vice president, ad sales, has emerged as the leading candidate. Also said to be in the running is CBS Television Stations president Johnathan Rodgers. If Rodgers gets the nod, Bud Carey, general manager of CBS-owned WCBS-TV New York, would probably be bumped up to Rodgers’ position.

Also unclear is whether Pilson’s replacement will report to Stringer or Lund. Pilson had reported to Stringer, but part of the thinking behind Lund’s promotion was to free Stringer up to focus more on programming, especially in light of rumors that CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky wants out. Lund also ran CBS Sports from 1984-86.

While baseball, football and basketball proved troublesome to Pilson, he goes out on a high note with CBS enjoying great success with its recent Winter Olympics coverage. The network also has had successes with its PGA golf, U.S. Open tennis, NCAA basketball and college football coverage.

“With CBS Sports’ long-term future secured by the successful completion of our Lillehammer coverage, the acquisition of the Nagano Olympics and SEC (and) Big East football and the extension of our broadcast rights to the PGA tour and PGA Championship, I feel it was the appropriate time to ask Howard Stringer for reassignment within the CBS Broadcast Group,” Pilson said in a statement.

Besides problems keeping sports, Pilson also had more than his fair share of problems with on-air talent in comparison to other networks. First NFL commentator Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder was fired over controversial remarks regarding black athletes. Then, in the middle of negotiations with “NFL Today” host Brent Musberger, Pilson decided instead to drop Musberger, who left, then criticized Pilson and NFL exec producer Ted Shaker on national television. Shaker eventually left for NBC and has since relocated to Sports Illustrated.

Pilson joined CBS in 1976 as director of business affairs for sports. In 1981 he was named president, CBS Sports, and in 1983 was named executive VP, CBS Broadcast Group. In 1986, he returned to sports as president.

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