Improved numbers shelter CBS from the fallout

Updated: Nov 29 2004, 05:30am hrs
The face of CBS News has announced his retirement from the anchor chair. The division still anticipates serious fallout from the investigation into the National Guard story that went wrong. Important news employees expect to be disciplined; some may well be fired.

Still, it is hard to wipe the grins off the faces of CBSs top executives.

CBS is doing so well right now with its entertainment programming that the unfortunate developments in its news division led by Dan Rathers sudden announcement Tuesday that he would step down sooner than expected from the anchor position after a 24-year run are being taken entirely in stride.

Our news division is not hurting us, said Leslie Moonves, the CBS chairman, who is also co-president of Viacom, the networks parent company.

That may not represent a ringing endorsement, but it also does not signal the kind of management displeasure that in the past led to major layoffs, big budget cuts or other batterings of CBS News.

Moonves was by no means shrugging off the seriousness of what may come out of the report by an independent commission looking into Rathers 60 Minutes segment examining President Bushs National Guard record. That broadcast relied on what turned out to be unsubstantiated documents.

Moonves said that when the commission report is released expected by the middle of December he fully expects it to be a tough day for CBS.

That is the kind of profit increase, in dollars, that the network expects to collect as a result of the best competitive performance by its prime time entertainment in a generation.

Moreover, CBS long identified as the gray-haired network is in position to record a significant breakthough with younger audiences once the complete results of the November ratings sweeps are in. (Sweeps are special ratings periods that advertisers use to buy commercial time for the next quarter of the year.)

For the first time since 1987, when Nielsen Media Research began measuring the age composition of audiences on a daily basis, CBS is expected to win the sweeps competition in every important ratings category: total viewers; viewers between the ages of 25 and 54; even viewers between the ages of 18 and 49.

The latter group, considered the most valuable to advertisers, has always been CBSs nemesis. (In the past, CBS has had to endure jokes about its viewers being less a hip audience than a hip-replacement audience.) The 18-to-49 group has long been the demographic the other three broadcast networks use as their only measure of success.

Now CBS is comfortably winning there. As of this week, CBS had a 4.6 rating in the November sweep with that group, to NBCs 4.1, ABCs 3.9 and Foxs 2.9 rating. (Each ratings point in that group represents about 1.2 million people.)

CBS is even beating NBC in the 18-to-49 group on Thursday nights, the biggest advertising night of the week and formerly NBCs must-see TV stronghold.

David F. Poltrack, the executive vice president of research for CBS, said the networks share of what he called the saleable audience, which spans both the 18-to-49 demographic and the 25-to-54 age group, had increased by over 2 percentage points this television season. That should transfer to more than $200 million in additional advertising revenue for CBS, Poltrack said.

BILL CARTER & JACQUES STEINBERG / NY TIMES