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CBS TOSSES HOUSE KEY

In what turned out to be a wise move, CBS brass made no attempts to sugarcoat the fact that the network is in need of a lot of work when it met with affiliates last week in Los Angeles.

Station execs who came to town angry at the network’s disappointing primetime results, the disarray of both the evening and the morning news and the constant swirl of speculation over whether chairman/CEO Laurence Tisch will sell the network left pleased that their voices were heard.

Most pleasing to affiliates was a declaration from Tisch that CBS/Broadcast Group president Peter Lund has total autonomy – and the necessary resources – to run the network.

Lund also embraced affiliates with news that the Eye web would start going after demographics instead of households in the ratings war.

“CBS is going off the household standard,” Lund declared. “We’re not going to be measuring a category called ‘fruit salad,’ when all anyone really cares about is apples and oranges.”

Lund promised that CBS will listen to its affiliates’ concerns and that “everything is under scrutiny” as the network battles to improve its performance after a dismal season.

“Our new programs signal a clear response to your needs with younger demographics and a continued emphasis on the lead-ins to your late news,” Lund said.

News will also be under the microscope. CBS News prexy Eric Ober promised “major correspondent moves in the coming months to build an A-team behind Dan Rather.” CBS, he said, plans to win in news and Rather is behind all the correspondent changes in the works. Ober hinted at the issue of a successor for Rather, although he noted that the anchor is still 15 years younger than “60 Minutes’ “Mike Wallace.

“Evening News” exec producer Andrew Hayward also told affils the broadcast will try to take views more consistent with their audience and stay away from the “typical network news voice.”

“CBS This Morning” is in for some major repairs. The show will be done before a live audience starting in the fall at a venue yet to be chosen. The show, affils said, will resemble something closer to “Live With Regis & Kathie Lee” than the other morning shows.

CBS execs and some affils also took a few shots at the press and its “feverish speculation” about the network’s programming and whether it’s for sale. “We want drama on the screen, not in the newspapers,” Lund said.

The meeting was not without outside interference. Fox tried to make waves by launching two 35-foot-tall hot-air balloons near the meeting to remind CBS affils that the upstart weblet topped the Eye network in the key adults 18-49 demographic during the just-concluded primetime season. One of the dirigibles read, “For a Future Call (Fox’s affiliate relations office number).”

The balloons quickly came down though, with Fox execs saying they felt the message had been heard. Fox affiliates were nevertheless angry at the stunt, which reminded them that Fox will consider them history if a better station comes along.

“Does it ever cease to surprise what the tackiest network in America will stoop to?” asked one Fox affil.

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