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CBS uses summer as a testing ground

Every summer, network executives watch the prime-time ratings plummet week after week and hope they can at least maintain a pulse until September. The endless diet of summer reruns has become more unpalatable to viewers with each new year _ and each new cable channel and each new video alternative. And the network executives admit they need to do something to halt the summer exodus.

But these are tight times for the networks; most programers say there is little or no money for original series in the summer.

Still, there are some indications that the summer might eventually be something more than TV's second-hand season.

The main exception, this year as last, is CBS, which is offering a reasonably full menu of new summertime entries.

Between now and the end of July, CBS will put on at least six series made up of fresh, previously unseen episodes.

The network's motivation is only partly a desire to keep viewers away from the cable channels. Mainly, it seems to believe summer can be a season of opportunity.

Several of the shows CBS will introduce this summer qualify as the kind of experimental television that its executives _ as well as those from the other networks _ have indicated they are more reluctant to try in the intensely competitive battleground of the fall season.

Last year, CBS pulled off a coup of sorts by starting two series in mid-summer that wound up thriving as regular members of the schedule.

One, Northern Exposure, is probably the most talked about new program on television and has become the 10 p.m. anchor of the network's strongest night of the week, Monday.

The other series, Top Cops, served CBS all year in several time periods, mainly as a counter to NBC's hit shows on Thursdays.

In both cases, the series were produced for much less money than standard shows cost. Warner said the network license fee for a summer show was only two-thirds of the standard fee, which is about $400,000 for a half-hour and about $1-million for an hour.

This summer CBS will try out several other shows Warner identified as "experimental" in format, including a suspense-horror series called Golden Years, conceived and written by Stephen King; a comedy called Morton and Hayes, based on the old two-reeler comedy films in the style of Laurel and Hardy; and a new half-hour from CBS News, called The Verdict, which will go inside real courtrooms to document real cases.

The Verdict begins June 21 at 8 p.m. The first two series, described by Warner as "perfect examples" of the summer species, will begin in July.

Morton and Hayes was a pet project of the film writer and director Rob Reiner, who first tried to sell it as a pilot for a fall series a year ago.

The network has already started a run of a new comedy from Norman Lear called Sunday Dinner, and later this month will try to find a new audience for original episodes of a comedy called Family Man that ran briefly last fall.

A sixth new CBS series, another news production called Whose Side Are Your On?, which examines controversial issues in confrontational discussions, will also have a three-episode run starting in July.

The other networks have much more limited summer lineups.