Where's the halo?

Network's sweeps showing did little to help CBS-owned stations

Briefing reporters at the end of the latest ratings sweeps period last month, CBS Television President Leslie Moonves said, "We have an awful lot to brag about. It's been our best sweeps in a long time." But there wasn't much of a halo effect extending to the CBS-owned station group, at least beyond prime time.

A look at last month's ratings for the CBS-owned stations, particularly the top five markets-New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco-shows little to brag about. Ratings-wise, those stations can't get arrested. They've all been in the ratings dumps for years, and the network's resurgence over the past couple of years hasn't changed that.

To be fair, the CBS group's performance below the biggest markets, while not stellar, is a lot better than in the top five markets. And, remarkably, the CBS-owned stations' revenues and profits have grown substantially over the past couple of years despite stagnant ratings in the major markets. The financial growth is attributed to the whip-cracking of former CBS chief and now Viacom head Mel Karmazin.

Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen estimates that the CBS group's revenues for 2000, not including the Paramount stations, rose 13%, to $1.13 billion, with a 15% gain in pretax earnings, to $610 million. The Paramount stations added another $470 million of revenue and $165 million in pretax earnings, Merrill Lynch estimates. In 1999, the group's revenues and profits grew 8% each; in 1998, revenues climbed 19%, while profits soared 45%.

But looking at the numbers for February, you wonder how the sales folks did it. WCBS-TV New York posted its lowest sign-on-to-sign-off rating for a February sweeps ever: a 3.2 household rating, which was a 9% drop, and an 8 share. The late news was down 25% in rating, also to a new February low.

The numbers for the CBS stations in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia tell a similar story: a distant third (sometimes fourth) in most key local-news and syndication time periods.

CBS researchers respond that there are some bright spots in the numbers. They point out, for example, that KCBS-TV Los Angeles jumped from fourth in February 2000 to second in prime time last month. And KFOR-TV Miami widened its prime time lead.

They also note that, in many cases when the CBS stations' rating fell, so did their competitors'. That was certainly true in New York, where the only stations to gain in household sign-on-to-sign-off ratings last month were the two Hispanic stations in the market, Univision's WXTV and Telemundo's WNJU(TV).

Joel Cheatwood, vice president in charge of news operations for the CBS group, says he was not surprised to see a drop in some of the February ratings, given the many news and programming changes being made at the group. "What the top markets have in common are stations very much in transition," he says.

Just last fall, the New York owned-and-operated station implemented a new format, known as the CBS Information Network, which incorporates information segments from throughout Viacom. It includes segments from CBS MarketWatch and CBS HealthWatch, as well as from cable channel VH-1, CBS Radio and Hollywood.com. Even deals with outside news sources, such as the New York Daily News, have been made and are being integrated into CBS stations' newscasts across a number of dayparts.

Some industry analysts say the CBS group is in some ways a victim of circumstances-albeit circumstances that CBS managers had a hand in creating. For years, the powerhouse syndication properties, like Oprah and Wheel of Fortune, have been locked up by competitors. CBS stations "have been unable to break through in terms of programming, and, when you don't have established syndicated shows, it makes it that much harder to attract viewers to your newscasts," says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Television.

Carroll also notes that the group doesn't exactly get off to a roaring start each day with The Early Show, which has struggled in the ratings since its debut a year and a half ago.

Another analyst says the CBS group is still plagued by the fact that much of its network's programming has broader appeal in middle and rural America-the "B" and "C" counties-and less appeal in the big, urban "A"-county markets. That's beginning to change with hits like Survivor, Everybody Loves Raymond and CSI. "But they still have a long way to go," the analyst notes.