New Season Seen as Crucial for Struggling CBS

The CBS television network needs a boost. Katie Couric's Evening News ratings are down; the CSI franchise is aging; and the best hope for a fresh hit, Kid Nation, is mired in controversy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In America, a new season of entertainment is coming to the small screen. The fall is make or break time for the networks and their line up of shows.

This year, the stakes are particularly high for CBS. And here to tell us why is Kim Masters, NPR entertainment correspondent.

Good morning, Kim.

KIM MASTERS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We're singling out CBS for this conversation. And I actually should put it to you. Why?

MASTERS: Well, CBS is the most exposed network in a way. You know, we've got ABC and the other broadcast networks. All these other networks have much larger parent companies but CBS stands on its own. It's a network and a couple of other businesses; radio and you know, outdoor-advertising. But, really, in terms of Wall Street, it's totally exposed and its network fare is going to get a ton of attention more so than at the other companies.

MONTAGNE: And its network fare does have some problems.

MASTERS: Well, it has been doing very well for quite a long time but the problem is that all of its big hits are aging. And so when you have "CSI" then "CSI" here and "CSI" there that have been on for years, you do start to say where is the next big breakout hit going come for CBS.

MONTAGNE: There's also some problems with decisions they've made on a range of things that have cost them money and prestige.

MASTERS: Right. There have been some things where, you know, Les Moonves who is the head of CBS, he has been one of the media darlings, he's one of the old-style moguls. He's a strong guy, he's charismatic, he used to be an actor.

But aside from the fact that the network could be on the press at this at some problems - there's has been things like the decision to hire Katie Couric, which as you know has been enormously controversial and has not paid off in ratings. And it's been very, very expensive. And CBS kind of argues, you know, gee, we were the Tiffany network and everything sticks to us. If other networks had these problems, the media, you know, might pay attention but not the way they beat up on us.

MONTAGNE: Now, tonight CBS is airing a primetime sneak preview of their new shows. So talk to us about what's to come.

MASTERS: Well, I think their weirdest new show is this one called "Viva Laughlin" which is sort of a musical in which the character spontaneously burst into song in which they are singing or lip-synching.

MONTAGNE: And we have a clip we can play a little of that.

(Soundbite of series, "Viva Laughlin")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As Woman) You are not who you are pretending to be, hubby pooh(ph) and daddy dot(ph).

Mr. LLOYD OWEN (Actor): (Ripley Holden) I maybe many things but I'm not a murderer.

(Soundbite of music)

MASTERS: So, that one is I think there's a great deal of skepticism. That's an expensive show and I think that, you know, there's a perception that CBS is almost throwing spaghetti at the wall. They have said we're trying different things.

And the other one that's gotten a ton of publicity, of course, is "Kid Nation." The show in which they are sending 40 kids out into the desert for 40 days with no parental supervision into this ghost town and they are 8 to 15 years old.

(Soundbite of series, "Kid Nation")

Mr. JONATHAN KARSH (Host): For 40 days the kids of Bonanza City will wrestle with hot button issues.

Unidentified Child#1: I never knew it was going to be this hard when you're actually running to be council of a city.

Unidentified Child#2: Kids have definitely more power here than in the real world.

Unidentified Child#3: This is our world.

MONTAGNE: So, "Kid Nation" has gotten some, if you would, say bad publicity but is all publicity good in a sense for a new show?

MASTERS: No. I think CBS meant to attract publicity but in this case they may have gone a bit farther than they intended. There are reports that some of the kids drank bleach out of an unmarked bottle; that another child was burned, of course, tremendous controversy just about the concept of it. We are now less than a week away from the launch of the show in September 19th.

CBS is very mum about who is advertising and there have been reports that -thanks to the controversy - advertisers are backing away. That would be fatal. What CBS is hoping is that when people see the show, they'll calm down, they'll think it's not that bad, they'll get ratings, thanks perhaps in part to that attention and then the advertisers will return.

MONTAGNE: Kim Masters is NPR entertainment correspondent.

Kim, thanks very much.

MASTERS: Thank you, Renee.

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