Columbia, The Gem Of The Airwaves?

Howard Stringer watches the White House closely these days, and not just because the campaign is in full cry. Stringer is president of the CBS/Broadcast Group. And it seems as if the Bush Administration can't stop messing with his network. First, Dan Quayle's infamous criticism of Murphy Brown sent the ratings of the CBS program's season premiere through the roof. Then President Bush proposed four Presidential debates on each Sunday leading up to the election, which could have disrupted CBS' telecast of the World Series.

Stringer can live with the compromise schedule, which was hammered out after discussions between the Bush and Clinton campaigns and intense lobbying by CBS. The network still will get squeezed on Oct. 11, when the first debate airs at 7 p.m., in the middle of a baseball playoff doubleheader. Stringer says CBS will delay the second game and join the debate in progress if the first game goes into extra innings. "There's nothing I can do about it," he says with a sigh. "It's a headache, but it will go away."

Stringer knows how to make the best of a bad lot. It's a skill that has helped him survive and thrive at one of the toughest jobs in broadcasting. As deputy to CBS Chairman Laurence A. Tisch since 1988, Stringer carried out the draconian cutbacks ordered by the network's austere owner. But he also engineered CBS' dramatic resurgence to ratings supremacy (chart). "I wouldn't have given a plug nickel for Howard's chances," says Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News. "He's a master strategist and a master diplomat."

MATURE VIEWING. The strategy for CBS' comeback was straightforward enough: Two seasons ago, the network was stuck in last place. With shows such as 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote, its lineup appealed mostly to older viewers. So Stringer and programming chief Jeffrey F. Sagansky decided to turn that perceived weakness into a virtue. They went after the 35-to-54-year-old audience in earnest, even at the expense of the young viewers whom sponsors seem to crave. The two calculated that ABC, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. would battle for the kids, while CBS would have the older audience to itself.

Stringer backed Sagansky as he developed series such as Northern Exposure and Evening Shade. Several became stellar performers. And by cultivating Hollywood producers such as Gary David Goldberg, Diane English, and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, CBS has bet on still more shows, such as Love & War, that appeal to viewers who prefer romantic comedy to Bart Simpson. Stringer, an Oxford graduate who collects rare books, says this partly reflects his own tastes: "It's much easier to put something on the air that you like."

He also used a good measure of diplomacy. The 6-foot, 4-inch Welshman drew on his considerable charm as well as his 27 years at CBS to boost flagging morale after the cutbacks. Stringer wooed back Peter A. Lund, who had left CBS in 1987 to run Multimedia Co., to reorganize the network's creaky advertising sales force. A former president of CBS News, Stringer also broke down barriers between the news and entertainment divisions, which often acted like feuding baronies. The result: CBS should widen its lead over ABC and NBC this season.

True, ratings no longer guarantee profits. CBS hurt itself badly by overbidding for marquee events such as baseball. And even Stringer acknowledges that CBS' core network may not make money in 1992. But the Tiffany network was able to cash in on its new status by boosting ad sales 14% during the annual period when sponsors buy commercial time for the upcoming season. That, and profits at the TV stations it owns and operates, has led media analyst Alan J. Gottesman of PaineWebber Inc. to predict that CBS Inc. will earn $165 million on revenues of $3.5 billion in 1992. CBS lost $98.7 million last year.

Even Tisch is impressed: "What we have achieved with Howard is a uniform message," he says. "We're interested in putting on the best programming possible. But in the context of the 1990s, that has to be done with efficiency."

Not an easy message to preach, especially to staffers who take CBS' tony nickname to heart. But colleagues say Stringer, 50, was helped by the alliances he forged in a lustrous career. He won nine Emmy Awards as a CBS News producer. "You can only walk into a situation like he did with an enormous reservoir of respect," says Anthony C. Malara, president of affiliate relations.

Malara should know. He leaned heavily on Stringer to help defuse an ugly dispute between CBS and its affiliates. They've been up in arms since the network's May announcement that it was slashing the $121 million it pays affiliates to carry everything from 60 Minutes to the afternoon soaps.

Affiliates complain regularly about compensation, but this dispute had mushroomed into a full-fledged revolt. Some stations threatened to preempt low-rated CBS shows, and two major affiliates even dropped CBS This Morning. Stringer backed off from the plan on Oct. 6, when he met with affiliates in Chicago and lopped almost half off CBS' proposed $20 million cutback. Affiliates are mollified: "They reached back into the old CBS playbook and acted with class," says Alan Bell, president of the broadcast division of Freedom Newspapers Inc., which owns four CBS affiliates. The old plan, he says, was "a series of miscalculations and blunders."

SMART SHIFTS. Stringer has had more success building bridges inside the network. Last season, for example, he prevailed on Sagansky to move the CBS News magazine 48 Hours from Thursday at 9 p.m., where it was being clobbered by NBC, to Wednesday at 10 p.m. Now, the show earns solid ratings and even finished No. 1 the week it covered Hurricane Andrew. Such success led Sagansky to encourage a third news magazine show, Street Stories.

Despite his background in news, Stringer has become a fairly shrewd player in Hollywood. He wines and dines key writers and producers and reads scripts tirelessly. Insiders say Stringer was an early champion of Northern Exposure. "His instincts about entertainment programming are about as good as you can get," says Sagansky.

Bloodworth-Thomason says Stringer saved one of her hit shows, Designing Women. Sagansky's predecessor at CBS had yanked the show before it had a chance to build an audience. To lobby for it, Bloodworth-Thomason had lunch with Stringer, who said he liked the show. Soon, Designing Women was back on CBS' schedule. "I said to myself, `Why is this very proper guy with a British accent getting so excited about a show about southern women?' " she says.

Stringer is stalking other talent as well. CBS is hot to sign NBC talk show host David Letterman to rescue its moribund late-night schedule. Tisch even has a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of Letterman's show on prominent display in his office.

Media buyers say Stringer is not as inspired by the more mundane world of ad sales. About the only marketing issue that animates him is CBS' crusade for older viewers. This season, he hopes to persuade his still chary salespeople that gray-haired viewers can be golden for CBS. Rivals may snipe that it's the network for grannies, but with Madison Avenue predicting that it will win the ratings race comfortably this season, Stringer can afford to relax. After what CBS has weathered, a little tranquility may be just what he needs.