CBS EYE ON JOE ORDINARY

The execs calling the shots for CBS Eye On People admit they have no idea how many subscribers will have the opportunity to see the Westinghouse/CBS entertainment/info cable channel on its proposed March 31 launch date. But they know one thing: Celebrities are out, and Joe Ordinary is in.

“People in our focus groups tell us they are tired of celebrities, especially when they aren’t news,” according to Lloyd Werner, exec VP of sales and marketing for Group W Satellite Communications.

“You won’t need to be a star to appear on Eye On People,” added CBS News executive VP Jonathan Klein. “What we’ll give people instead is the context, perspective and closure that people tell us they want.”

The two were laying out plans for the cable channel on Tuesday to a group of journalists in Pasadena attending the semi-annual Television Critics Assn. press tour.

They indicated that one of the cornerstones of the web will be repackagings of CBS News programming freshened with new material that updates or expands on the people and stories profiled on CBS shows. For example, “60 Minutes” has been recast on Eye On People as a weeknight (9 p.m.) staple called “60 Minutes More.”

“Lesley Stahl did an interview with Stephen King that will run only 15 minutes on ’60 Minutes,’ ” Klein said. “She told me, ‘I could give you a two-hour special for the cable channel.’ That’s the kind of opportunity this network will afford.”

Klein said that about 70% of the network’s product, or 14 shows in the beginning, will come from CBS News, and he predicts the web could have “three or four tentpole shows that break out as signatures for us.”

However, it needs to get signups. Werner said he isn’t worried about that, even though he won’t have a reliable guess on the network’s launchtime penetration figure until mid-February.

“We’re in final negotiations with the top 10 MSOs right now,” Werner said. “They have contracts in front of them. We hope to have (answers) in the next few weeks.” Those top 10 operators boast 70% of cable subscribers in the U.S., he said, “so we’ll know a lot more very soon.”

Eye On People stands to benefit from the same retransmission consent rules that benefited Fox’s FX and NBC’s America’s Talking (since rolled into MSNBC). But Werner believes that advantage isn’t what it was three years ago.

“All it does is get cable operators to the table,” he said. “They know they have to talk to us. But we don’t want to get into a situation where we’re holding anyone hostage. We can’t force them to carry Eye On People. We’d rather deal with them as friends than as adversaries.”

Werner added that cable ops will be receiving market exclusivity for the channel. But when pressed on the point, he admitted that the exclusive will be “terrestrial only,” meaning it doesn’t include satellite transmission and the growing competition from DBS.

As for the potential of Eye On People to competitively cannibalize CBS’ broadcast network fare, Klein said, “(Our) not going into cable would not stop cable from getting new audience. That cable viewer is going to be watching something; this simply promotes, to the audience not watching CBS, (that it should) watch CBS.”

Werner went further, saying, “If we can develop new talent on our network and drive it to CBS, the network will be helped.”

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