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.

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