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CBS Strength in Prime Gives Boost to O&Os

CBS's owned stations, often embarrassing laggards behind NBC and ABC powerhouses in some of the nation's biggest markets, are seeing a boost from the network's prime time performance that's starting to pay off in late local news and other dayparts.

"It's been a number of years that CBS prime has been very strong," says Fred Reynolds, president of the Viacom Stations Television Group, and finally, the stations "made sure we followed that with the strongest possible newscasts."

In late local news, the CBS O&Os are up in households by an average 11% over last November. The NBC stations in the same 15 markets are down 6%; the ABC stations, up 4%.

It's early for CBS to start celebrating its performance, with late news on the CBS O&Os remaining in third or fourth place in most markets, but KPIX-TV San Francisco jumped from third to first in this month's sweeps, and KCBS-TV Los Angeles, WBBM-TV Chicago and KEYE-TV Austin, Texas, have all have moved from fourth to third. Only KCNC-TV Denver declined, falling to fourth from third.

Perhaps more important, all but three of the CBS owned stations (not including WWJ-TV Detroit, which eliminated its newscast last November) are seeing ratings growth in their late news. In households sweeps- to-date, WCBS-TV New York has jumped 15%, WBBM-TV has increased 26%, WPIX-TV San Francisco has gained 29%, KTVT-TV is up 40% and KEYE-TV has improved 37% at 11 p.m.

In prime time, "it's the first time KEYE-TV has been No. 1 in the market since CBS owned the station," says station Vice President and General Manager Gary Schneider.

The household rating is the only available measure of station performance during a sweeps period, and stations, more than networks, tend to focus on adults 25-54 and viewers. While the CBS-owned stations are seeing growth in their household ratings, they still have work to do to convert that into demo dominance, says one senior broadcast executive.

In prime time, the CBS O&Os in their 15 metered markets are up 14% in households comparing this November sweeps with last year, according to Nielsen. In the same markets, NBC-owned stations and affiliates are down 8%; ABC stations are down 3%; and Fox stations are down 6%.

Such improvements have put CBS in first place in prime time in 13 of its 15 metered markets. The exceptions are Chicago and Detroit, where WBBM-TV and WWJ-TV, respectively are each running third.

"To take a 14% increase in prime time and convert that to an 11% increase in local news is very good, and it's unlikely the CBS stations won't have increases in their demographic performances as a result," says David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president of research and planning. "That's a big competitive shift that will result in a significant distribution of money in most markets."

This also is the first time WCBS-TV New York is on track to win households in prime time during November sweeps since 1980, he adds.

Last year, CBS O&Os were No. 1 in prime time in only six of their 15 metered markets: San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Miami, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

The Late Show With David Letterman
is getting some help: It's up 14% on the CBS O&Os. Growth is always good, but Letterman
still takes its lumps from NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno, which is up 4% in those 15 markets. And season-to-date, Leno
is slaughtering Letterman
nationwide by a margin of 47% in adults 18-49.

While the CBS's ratings have been growing steadily, and the network has been the most-watched for some time now, it's also the only network this sweeps period to see year-to-year ratings increases in all demographics categories.

CBS has developed such high-rated shows as CSI: Miami
on Monday nights and Without a Trace
on Thursday nights. Both have helped buoy CBS's late newscasts, which in turn prop up Letterman.

"[CBS Chairman and CEO] Leslie Moonves has been an absolute prince when it's come to helping this division regain its footing. He's understood how important it is to help the late-news lead-ins," says Viacom Station Group COO Dennis Swanson, who joined from NBC in 2002.

"One success leads to another," chimes in Reynolds. "Now that CBS is beating NBC's Must-See TV, our Fridays and Saturdays are stronger. You need that success to be able to promote to viewers."

Since Reynolds' arrival in June 2001 and Swanson's in July 2002, CBS has seen ratings on its local newscasts improve. Swanson began steady and expensive raids on top talent from competitors, from general managers to news directors to anchors and weather folk. And CBS invested in Doppler weather radar and better graphics systems for all its stations.

Many of the CBS stations also have gotten a big boost from the success of King World's Dr. Phil, which is up some 23% in its sophomore season. CBS stations that air the show are seeing stronger newscasts at 4 and 5 p.m., Reynolds says. Based on the strength of the show, CBS launched a 4 p.m. newscast on KCNC-TV Denver just to take advantage of Phil's lead-in.

Reynolds says that, while Dr. Phil
is expensive, it's also profitable. "It's like saying 'Is having the Super Bowl expensive?' Yeah, but I'd rather have it then not. And I don't believe in loss leaders."

Besides Dr. Phil, King World's Oprah, Paramount's Judge Judy
and Warner Bros.'People's Court
also perform on the CBS O&Os.

While afternoons through late-nights are showing improvement for the CBS O&Os, mornings remain a trouble spot. Swanson is working hard to improve his stations' early-morning news to help give The Early Show
a boost, but with NBC's Today
show and ABC's Good Morning America
firmly entrenched, it's hard to break through.

The Early Show
is improving, though, jumping 10% in households, 13% in total viewers and 22% in adults 25-54 year-to-year.

Even with all the good news, both Reynolds and Swanson say they have a lot of work to do. "We're not No. 1 in audience share or billing in the top six markets," Reynolds says. "And our goal has always been to be No. 1 in those areas in the top six markets."