CBS Eye on People, which will celebrate its first
anniversary this month, is continuing to refocus its programming by showcasing stories
about people and by planning to strip a large number of shows in primetime this summer.
"One of the issues that we had at the channel was that
it was news-documentary-oriented," said Geoffrey Darby, president of Eye on People.
"We needed to live up to our promise of 'Real Stories, Real People.'"
The fledgling network found that it had strayed somewhat
from its original mandate last year. Now, as part of its effort to "lighten up"
and to emphasize programming about people, the network will debut two major series this
year: David Frost: Interviews I'll Never Forget, which premieres April 5; and Great
People of the 20th Century, which is being produced and hosted by Academy Award- and
Emmy-winning producer David Wolper. That show starts airing in December.
"We call ourselves a people channel," Darby said.
"We have to do the greatest people of the 20th century."
Distribution has been slow-going for the network, running
below the projections that it originally touted last year. Eye on People currently reaches
8.5 million homes, including direct-broadcast satellite, and officials expect distribution
to hit 17.5 million by the end of the year. But operators appreciate its original-laden
programming lineup and its willingness to offer exclusivity against terrestrial
"They've been true to what they said they would
do: cover the people behind the stories. It's not 24-hour news. I like the fact that
they're really letting the programming sell," said Pam Burton, director of
marketing at Prime Cable, which recently launched the network in some small Alaska
The network faced speculation last year that CBS Inc. was
going to pull the plug on it before the end of 1997. Now, several analysts said they
expect CBS to give its fledgling cable network another 12 to 18 months to succeed.
On programming, one of Eye on People's main goals this
year is to build its library, so that it will have enough episodes banked to be able to
strip roughly eight series, in access and primetime weeknights, starting this August,
Darby said. The stripping will make it easier for viewers to find specific programs on Eye
on People, Darby added.
"We learn from what other people do," he said.
"Biography was not a hit until A&E [Network] stripped it."
Eye on People, part of CBS Cable, came out of the box March
31, 1997, with a rather ambitious lineup of 400 hours of original programming, or 14
original new series that were mainly produced by CBS News Productions. The network wound
up renewing eight shows from that original slate.
In some cases, as with Against the Law and 60
Minutes More, Eye on People had produced enough episodes to strip the shows, and it
didn't need to renew them, Darby said.
In the case of other shows that weren't renewed, as
with Under Fire and Off Tenth, the programming just didn't pan out.
At the time, CBS corporate also wanted to pare back some of
Eye on People's programming costs. Off Tenth, which obtained some of its
segments from CBS stations and bureaus, will probably re-emerge at some point in some form
on the schedule, Darby added.
With the guidance of some focus groups last summer, Eye on
People learned that it needed to get back to an emphasis on "lighter" shows that
dealt with people. The programming had been slanted toward news and documentary, rather
naturally, because it was being produced by CBS News, Darby said.
The focus groups moved the network to cancel one series and
to tweak others to make them more people-oriented and less reliant on hard-news and
political stories, Darby said. For example, he noted that an episode of I Witness
that is being shot follows medical interns in New Orleans.
The network has affiliation deals with five of the top 10
MSOs, and it has had some key launches recently. It is carried on Tele-Communications
Inc.'s Headend in the Sky digital tier, as well as on a new tier that Time Warner
Cable is debuting in New York. Cablevision Systems Corp. has also rolled it out in several
of its large systems.
Estimates on the start-up's losses varied widely. Drew
Marcus, an analyst at BT Alex. Brown, estimated that Eye on People lost $15 million to $20
million last year, and that it will lose $20 million to $30 million this year. Others
pegged this year's red ink at $15 million.
"They are continuing to upgrade the programming, but
they have yet to hit a mass of subscribers," Marcus said. "There is a chance
that it will be at breakeven in 1999. CBS is committed to giving Eye on People the chance
that it needs."
Eye on People has the budget to produce several specials
for the fourth quarter. That's when it expects to be measured by Nielsen Media
Research, according to Darby.
Darby said he looks forward to Eye on People being rated
because of what happened when it was showcased, for seven weeks in primetime on an
independent TV station in New York. Its ratings peaked at a 1.7 without any promotion,
The network will also rev up its marketing this year, and
it plans to focus much of its consumer promotion by running spots on local cable to avoid
waste, Darby said.