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Cable net TNN has an ‘Angel’ in CBS

NEW YORK — The Nashville Network has moved out front as the most likely winner of the cable-network bidding for reruns of the hit CBS series “Touched by an Angel.”

That’s the word from Lloyd Werner, executive VP of sales and marketing for CBS Cable, who said that once CBS completes its $1.5-billion purchase of TNN and its sister channel Country Music TV, it will be looking for ways to strengthen these services by funneling strong programs to their schedules.

CBS owns “Touched by an Angel,” and its TV-syndication company Eyemark Entertainment has held talks with Lifetime and Family Channel, among other cable networks. But cable sources say these networks are turned off because CBS is insisting on packaging “Angel” with reruns of a CBS sitcom that’s not in demand, “Dave’s World,” with Harry Anderson.

In the past, TNN has picked up older off-network properties such as “Dallas” and “Dukes of Hazzard” long after their syndication runs had come to an end. But the channel has never sprung for a series in its immediate post-broadcast-network window.

Werner’s comments came during a press gathering here for the new cable network CBS Eye on People, which begins operation next week. Geoffrey Darby, president of CBS Eye on People, said CBS will spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” over the next few years on the new channel. “We’ve hired over 140 people to create programming” for Eye on People, says Darby, “and we’ll kick off with 14 original series.”

As a result of the big expense, Darby says, “we won’t be cash positive until year eight or nine.” Werner adds, “And it’ll take from 10 to 12 years before CBS gets all of its money back, plus interest.”

Eye on People will kick off with about two million cable subscribers, Werner says, although he declined to name any specific cable systems, citing confidentiality agreements. Based on deals already struck, he says Eye On will be at three million subscribers by the end of April. He’s projecting 10 million by Dec. 31, 1997, some of which could be satellite-dish owners because Eye On is negotiating with direct-broadcast-satellite distributors like DirecTv and Primestar.

In New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other big markets, Werner will try to link deals for Eye on with the cable system’s carriage of the local CBS-owned TV station. This strategy, known in the industry as retransmission consent, got three networks launched in the mid-’90s: ABC’s ESPN2, Fox’s FX and NBC’s America’s Talking. The latter was morphed into MSNBC last year.

CBS was the only one of the four broadcast networks that failed to get its own cable channel out of retrans, so it will try to make up for lost time. But Werner says there’ll be no confrontation over the issue — CBS will extend the current deadline of June 30 as long as the cable operator hasn’t slammed the door to negotiating for pickup of the channel.

Andy Heyward, president of CBS News, told the assembled reporters that “we’re putting our crown jewel, ’60 Minutes,’ into the lineup. We’ve always held back on making it available, despite the fact that we could’ve made enormous amounts of money” by repackaging it for TV syndication or for another cable network like A&E or Discovery. Eye On will create an hourlong format under the title “60 Minutes More,” which will run every night at 9.

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