Surprise shift in network rankings; 'Bud' Grant -- Man behind CBS-TV's hop to the ratings top

A gentlemen named Bud is the man responsible for the flowering of CBS last season. When a TV network is in ratings trouble, the finger is usually pointed at its president -- and often rightly so, since he is the man with most of the final yea-or-nay programming power. And when a network makes a heroic leap to first place in the ratings after dwelling in the viewing lower depths, it is only fair that the same man should get the credit.

The man who accomplished what some insiders consider the impossible task of bringing CBS up to No. 1 position this past season is B. Donald (Bud) Grant, president of CBS Entertaiment Division. He did it with a little help, perhaps, from his friends on the CBS board -- namely William S. Paley.

Bud Grant occupies an unpretentious office in "Black Rock,"CBS headquarters here. Unpretentious but, still, a sunny, double-windowed corner office, the kind not usually assigned to minor executives. He greets the interviewer with a cheery smile which belies the slightly "Hitlerian" mustache - a bit like Charlie Chaplin playing "The Great Dictator" rather than the dictator himself. But Mr. Grant is no martinet -- he is an easygoing man with a sense of humor far more sophisticated than the broad humor so often dominant in his shows.

In past years I have seen him at press conferences, microphone in hand, working the room like a skilled nightclub entertainer, always ready with exactly the right answer to seemingly impossible questions. His good nature and staying power are much admired in an industry accustomed to the quick coming and going of nervous executives. He is really a Very Important Person because, as head of the e entertainment division of a network that finished first 20 out of 25 weeks of the 1980-81 season, Mr. Grant is one of TV's top tastemakers.

Although he has worked at CBS since 1972, it was only last year that he was put in charge of developing new entertainment programming. Scheduling and promotion are also under his aeigis.

"You would come visit me," he laughs, "during one of the few weeks that CBS falls out of first place." (It was mainly due to the high ratings of NBC's "Miss Universe" contest.) "Well, we had a long winning streak, and if we have to lose a week, I'm glad it's not during the regular season." (Since he said that, CBS has been in and out of the top spot several times.)

TO what does he attribute the 1980-81 CBS comeback?

"As long as I've been here we've had a consistent point of view, and that is series programming. That's the backbone of the CBS schedule. Series programming is the most popular and efficient form for television. Three or four year ago there was a definite division of opinion between the way we approached things and the way NBC did -- they went for event programming, specials, miniseries, that sort of thing. Well, . . ." he shrugs his shoulders as NBC's last-place position is obviously recalled.

"My theory is -- find successful series programming develop it, put it on the air, promote it well, advertise it well."

But doesn't that mean what some might consider questionable shows like "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Magnum, P.I.?"

He shrugs. "But it also means 'Trapper John,' 'Lou Grant,' and 'M*A*S*H.' Not everything can appeal to everybody."

Mr. Grant says the 8-9 p.m. hour should be devoted to family entertainment, although he adds "giving that hour the name 'Family Viewing Hour' was unfortunate. It made that hour sound as if it had limited appeal, and it didn't deserve that. All three of the networks for many years have recognized the peculiarities of an early-evening show, that there are a good number of young people in the audience. Being responsible broadcaster, we recognize the need to program with that in mind. Despite what some people believe, we are basically responsible programmers."

Does this season's new schedule reflect the influence of the Moral Majority?

"I don't think so -- yet I couldn't say honestly to you that they're being ignored. They are still a very vocal presence. But the shows that are going on now were developed over a year ago, before the Moral Majority and the Coalition for Better Television became so vocal.

"TV series go in cycles. There used to be a slew of westerns on the air. And then there were private eye shows. It's the public. They like one thing until the point of saturation and then the pendulum swings the other way. So television is always going through cycles. I think it is evolution, but I don't think it is revolution."

Is it really the public which demands these cycles, or is it TV executives who think in terms of certain subject matter being easy winners?

"Well, in the long run, it is the public which turns the dial on or off, isn't it?"

Can Mr. Grant predict the next trend in TV?

"Nobody knows what that will be. Trends are set by one producer finding a hit -- and the rest following along. But you usually find a hit by stumbling across it -- you think a show will be good, but. . . . I can't honestly say to you that I thought 'Dallas' was going to turn out to be one of the highest-rated shows on TV. I thought it would be successful but . . . it started a trend. Success dictates trends."

But NBC is bringing back so many old timers like James Arness, Jim Garner, tony Randall, and Mickey Rooney in new shows. Isn't that creating a trend in itself?

"I know what happened there. NBC looked at shows they had developed and decided they wouldn't work. At the last minute they had to get new shows for the fall so they put together stars and producers. . . ."

Will it work?

"I don't think that stars make television. I think that television makes stars. Look at 'M*A*S*H.' Alan Alda wasn't exactly a household name before that show. Did you ever hear of Henry Winkler before 'Happy Days'?"

Does Mr. Grant see signs that cable TV will eventually turn out to be a carbon copy of current commercial over-the-air broadcasting, as some experts are beginning to predict?

"I don't think so. There is always going to be a distinction between broadcasting and 'narrowcasting.' CBS Cable and CBS Entertainment are not interested in the same kind of programs. We have a much broader base."

Some people believe that the age of "consensus" viewing is over. With so many channels available, will 100 million people ever watch the same show at the same time again?

"It's possible. But I'm a football fan and I watch the Super Bowl every year on ABC or NBC for nothing. So do millions of others . . . and they will continue to do so. That's consensus TV, isn't it? But now the NFL is going to make a deal with pay TV, and I am going to have to pay for it. I'm not so sure I wouldn't write a letter to my congressman."

Is there any chance commercial television will change as the competition from cable grows -- perhaps that commercial interruptions will be lessened?

"A chance, but not a great chance. I think a lot of it is just the way viewers perceive it. If you did a study of how many minutes of every hour were commercial time in 1981 and in 1970, you'd find it not significantly different. There used to be the one-minute commercial where there are now two 30-second commercials. The time is the same but the different messages make you feel there is more commercial time."

How about exploitive TV -- the move of all networks to do docudramas on ticklish subjects?

Mr Grant doesn't smile this time. "It really bothers me when it is discovered that CBS is going to do a movie or a miniseries and nobody knows what the point of view is going to be and we are pre-judged. It happened to us with Manson and with Jim Jones. We were criticized in advance unfairly."

Right now CBS is being criticized for proposing to do a show about the Atlanta murders, and Mr. Grant is angry about the reaction.

"It is going to be the story of a city, a positive story about how the citizens of that city have come together rather than split apart, and how those blacks and whites have joined together in a constructive manner. It has nothing at all to do with the so-called exploitive story of some alleged maniac running around killing black children. And still they are already criticizing us for doing it."

How does Mr. Grant feel about CBS's new season with such new series as "Simon & Simon," Mr. Merlin," "Shannon," "Jessica Novak," and "Falcon Crest"? Are they relatively free of the sex and violence that, many people charge, TV has been guilty of lately?

"Maybe TV did go through a cycle of too much sex and violence," he says, "but we're out of that now. Take a look at some of our comedies. I think 'Mr. Merlin' [premiering Oct. 7 and starring Barnard Hughes] is wholesome family entertainment. I particularly like 'The Two of US' [returning for its second season on Oct. 12] with Peter Cook. That's a very literate and intelligent comedy I think we are into perhaps a new wave in comedy and maybe drama too. Taste and literacy and intelligence."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.