A Triple Axel For Cbs Sports

The gloom is suddenly lifting a bit at Black Rock, the New York headquarters of CBS Inc. That's because even before Tonya and Nancy hit the ice on Feb. 23, CBS's broadcasts of the Winter Olympics were clearly a smash hit. Through the first 10 days, the Lillehammer Olympics averaged a Nielsen rating of 25--meaning that nearly 24 million homes tuned in each night. That's way above the 18.6 rating the network had promised big Olympics advertisers such as Campbell Soup, Chrysler, and Coca-Cola--to say nothing of outpacing the 18.7 rating CBS earned at the '92 Albertville games and ABC's 19.3 for Calgary in '88.

Surprise, surprise. Sports are far from dead at the Tiffany network. In January, after CBS lost its treasured share of the National Football League schedule to upstart Fox Broadcasting Co., the CBS Sports Div. seemed destined to shrink in every way: personnel, prestige, and revenue. Now, things are looking up--at least a bit. On top of its Olympics triumph, CBS Sports President Neal H. Pilson announced on Feb. 4 that college football would return to the network after a five-year absence. For a combined $150 million over five seasons beginning in 1996, CBS landed the Southeastern and Big East Conferences, which boast such prominent members of the crumbling College Football Assn. as Alabama, Florida State, Miami, and Syracuse.

It's all part of a new, boost-the-bottom-line attitude at CBS Sports. During the go-go 1980s, when the network ranked third in the ratings, Chief Executive Laurence A. Tisch paid out billions for hot sports properties. Lately, though, such tactics threatened to cost too much: Given its higher overhead, CBS would have lost $200 million a year on the contract had it matched Fox's $1.6 billion bid for the National Football Conference, analysts figure.

And for now, the Winter Olympics' high ratings are giving the whole network a boost. With the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga and crowd-pleasing performances by skaters Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen drawing viewers, CBS beat archrival ABC by 3.8 rating points during the games' first week. And CBS used the Olympics to plug its other programs with a vengeance.

Still, the network faces major challenges. The loss of the NFL will hurt. And, though CBS is still No.1 in the overall ratings, its lead is slipping and it lacks hit shows. With luck, though, the network may soon manage something in sports programming that it couldn't while airing pro football: a profit.