By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

CBS, the perennial also-ran network that for years has been running dead last among the Big Three, suddenly finds itself the top-rated network in the country in terms of viewers.

With hits like "60 Minutes," "Touched by an Angel" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," CBS has a bigger audience than any other network. Season to date as of Feb. 14, it had a 13.3 rating, NBC a 12.6, ABC a 12.05 and Fox an 11.36.

But despite that success, CBS still can't get any respect from the people who matter most advertisers. The trouble is, the wrong sort of audience is watching CBS: older people.

As a result, the network is doing everything it can to change the perception among advertisers that the older audience doesn't matter very much.

"A 50-year-old today isn't a 50-year-old 30 years ago, but for years, (the TV industry) has been operating with 30-year-old rules," said CBS Television President Les Moonves.

Moonves is on a crusade to convince Madison Avenue that the buying power of baby boomers is increasing, especially now that many of their children have finished college.

To illustrate his point, Moonves repeats a comment made by Andy Rooney on "60 Minutes" about the battle over demographics between his CBS show and NBC's sitcom, "Jenny," starring former Playboy magazine Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy.

"Let me get this straight," Rooney said, "60 Minutes' audience is richer, smarter and older but is less valuable than Jenny's, whose audience is younger, dumber and poorer."

"Jenny" was cancelled last season.

For years, Madison Avenue has insisted that a network's total viewership is less important than its viewership among 18- to 49-year-olds. Advertisers covet younger, hipper people who, the theory goes, are willing to sample new products. Old codgers are believed too set in their ways to try unfamiliar brands.

"The general consensus has been that if an advertiser catches you while you are young and in the habit-forming stage of your life, they will have you throughout your life span," said Bill Croasdale, a media buyer for Western Initiative Media.

Because CBS's key demographic is made up of viewers between 25 and 54, it doesn't have anywhere near the power to attract the ad revenues of NBC, which leads among the 18-49 crowd.

During the summer upfront advertising season, when the networks pitch their wares for the coming season, NBC drew $2.2 billion nearly twice CBS's take of $1.25 billion.

This variance plays out show by show. For example, CBS's "Touched by an Angel" has a 14.7 rating in total households but only a 4.5 rating with 18- to 34-year-olds. It gets $150,000 for a 30-second commercial.

The Fox sitcom "The Simpsons" has only an 8.5 rating in households, but a 7.8 rating in the key 18-34 demographic. It gets $210,000 for a 30-second commercial.

Moonves said that, as the boomers age, they will attract an entirely new list of sponsors. "Most pharmaceutical companies don't advertise on (The WB's) 'Dawson's Creek,' " he said.

According to media buyers and analysts, Moonves' arguments are beginning to get through. Harold Vogel, a veteran financial analyst, said CBS is getting more respect from advertisers.

"The return of the NFL has helped, and as the age of the population rises the argument that CBS is making improves," Vogel said. "It's not crazy. CBS is on the right track."

Pam McNeely, a media buyer for Los Angeles-based ad agency Dailey & Associates, agreed that CBS is receiving more attention. "We are giving CBS more consideration because of the overall numbers," she said. "There is a there, there."

Even so, NBC is expected to take in $200 million in profits during the 1998-1999 prime-time season, while CBS is expected to lose about $100 million.

CBS Television, which includes CBS Corp.'s TV stations, earned $188 million in 1998 but analysts believe all the profits came from the stations.

While continuing his crusade on older viewers, Moonves is hedging his bets. In recent years, CBS has been working to create shows that appeal to younger viewers, such as "Everybody Loves Raymond," "King of Queens" and "Jag."

Media buyers approve of the network's tactic of trying to hit as wide an audience as possible, something that has not been CBS's strength in the past. One of Moonves' predecessors scheduled 11 new shows for the fall season, all appealing only to younger viewers.

"CBS crashed and burned," Croasdale recalled. "It turned off the network's core audience. Les is doing this step by step."

Meanwhile, Moonves believes that advertisers will eventually come to recognize the buying power of older viewers. "I think there will be a sea change," he said. "It will take a while. But when I leave this network, CBS will still be the oldest-skewing network."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.