But what Neal Pilson lacks in expertise on playing fields, he has in spades in the executive suites of the media game—and nowhere is that game harder to play than at CBS. In recent years the network has become a strange and bedeviled operation that seems to have lost its cool, along with its prime-time ratings. The network was the object of a Ted Turner takeover bid in 1985 and may yet be a target of Walt Disney Productions or other rumored suitors. Tisch, CBS's majority owner, chose a slash-and-burn defense to discourage takeovers, lopping off some 1,500 staffers in '86 and selling CBS Records, CBS Publishing, CBS Magazines and other assets.
Pilson has been something of a rock amid all this turmoil. He came to CBS from the William Morris Agency as a contract negotiator in 1976 and became president of CBS Sports in '81. And, except for the years '83 to '86, when he was executive vice-president of the CBS Broadcast Group, he has been president ever since. This is a remarkable run, considering that the presidency of CBS Sports was a revolving-door position for several years before his arrival. Howard Stringer, the charming, Welsh-born president of the CBS network, says, "Neal brings a combination of grace and cool and steadiness and reliability to this place where there has been precious little stability in the last few years. He is what I would call a captain of this industry."
Pilson got that way by being a CBS company man first and a builder of sports empires second. Barry Frank, a former ABC Sports vice-president, one of those revolving-door CBS Sports presidents (1976 to '78) and now International Management Group's TV rights superagent, compares Pilson with the original king of network sports: "Roone Arledge's one fault was that he was more interested in ABC Sports than he was in the ABC network. Neal sees his department as fitting into the needs of the whole network and not as a separate powerhouse that he operates by himself."
Pilson says, "Much as I like sports, what engrosses me most is business. It's not the jock part of it that keeps me going, it's the chess play."
Whatever game Pilson is playing, most of his power lies in his money—or, rather, in the $3 billion war chest Tisch has given him. As the boss of what used to be called the Tiffany of TV networks, Tisch, a diminutive, bald billionaire who made his fortune in hotels and movie theaters as the primary owner and CEO of the Loews Corporation, has produced annual operating profits of between $228.6 and $294.6 million since taking control of CBS in 1986. As of last week, CBS stock stood at $204 per share, compared with a pre-Tischian $126. The company's revenue projections for the remainder of the year, however, are said to be gloomy, partly because it may have to begin making good on its huge sports deals in the face of sharply declining ad revenues.
If his record has been good (so far) as a money-maker, Tisch's performance as a television magnate has been inept. To put it bluntly, he has turned Tiffany into K Mart. CBS had been the leader in prime-time ratings from 1970 through '85, when it slipped to second place behind NBC. It has never recovered. In '88, with ABC's prime-time Winter Olympic coverage added to NBC's powerful menu of sitcoms and serials, CBS dropped to No. 3 in prime time for the first time in its history. In last month's sweeps it finished a surprising second to NBC, 11.8 to 11.9. But the CBS Evening News, which for 20 years was an untouchable No. 1 under the benevolent reign of Walter Cronkite, has slipped to second under the erratic rule of Dan Rather, and there remains more than an air of desperation at the network. Thus, the turn to a very unlikely savior: CBS Sports.
Because entertainment and news at CBS were so platinum-plated for so many years, the sports division operated as something of an afterthought. Until the late 1970s, CBS was satisfied to have the NFL, the Masters and the Kentucky Derby for its major events. Then it went after, and got, the rights to the '92 Winter Games in Albertville, France. It was the first time the network had seriously bid on an Olympics since it won the rights to both the Winter and Summer Games of '60. It acquired rights to the NBA in '73, but it had never shown any interest in baseball, college football or NCAA basketball until the '80s. Prime-time sports were unnecessary—indeed unthinkable—for a network that stood No. 1 at night with a wildly varied sitcom diet that ranged from The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw to M*A*S*H and All in the Family.
Before 1980, CBS Sports generally seemed more like a college fraternity house than a place of serious business. This, it must be said, was more or less true of all network sports operations in those unbuttoned, pre-Perrier days; but CBS Sports was a touch more lighthearted than the others. Back then, ABC was first in sports, under the innovative Arledge. Television Age once wrote, "CBS Sports seemed to exist only so that NBC wouldn't be last in everything."
But what a difference a decade or two can make. With NBC No. 1 in prime-time ratings, CBS rules the roost only in sports. It now controls so many events that it expects to air a whopping 53% of network sports programming (bringing in as much as 30% of CBS's overall network revenue) in 1990. NBC is likely to be left with 26% of the sports programming pie and once dominant ABC with just 21%. Indeed, CBS this year possesses the richest trove of big—rilly big, as CBS's Ed Sullivan used to say—sporting events any network ever owned (chart, page 83). We are talking about the crown jewels of sports: As 1990 ends, CBS will have aired the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, the NCAA basketball tournament, the Masters, the NBA playoffs, the All-Star Game, tennis's U.S. Open, both of baseball's league championship series and the World Series. At CBS, this is known as the Dream Season. Pilson says, "It's never happened before and very likely won't ever happen again."
Yet the fact is, CBS really wouldn't mind if another network had all those big events, so long as CBS had top-rated entertainment shows in prime time. Pilson, Tisch, and his key aide, the senior vice-president of CBS Inc., Jay Kriegel, who some TV analysts believe has been the primary architect of CBS's strategy, would rather be airing The Cosby Show (NBC) and Roseanne (ABC) than the World Series. They might even prefer America's Funniest Home Videos (ABC) to the Final Four.