CBS CEO Leslie Moonves on Ashton Kutcher Contract Talks, Keith Olbermann's Future and the One Note He Gives Wife Julie Chen (Q&A)
THR gets an inside look at the L.A. and N.Y.C. executive suites of the president and CEO of CBS Corp., who assesses his network’s performance and reveals future aspirations.
THR: You famously kept CBS out of Hulu when the other broadcasters dived in. A few years later, was that the right decision?
Moonves: Absolutely. We have CBS.com, which is our own Hulu. I've always said that I don't like joint ventures. It's good to control our own properties, and it's good to have 100 percent of the dollars that come from it. I think Hulu is a good service, and it has worked out for the other three companies, but I'm glad we went a different route.
THR: Steve Jobs tried to persuade you -- unsuccessfully -- to take part in Apple TV. Are you urging others not to participate?
Moonves: No. It's very interesting. We make a lot of money from advertising, syndication and [retransmission fees]. We don't want to take our content and establish other services that may challenge those revenue streams. So a Netflix that comes to us and says, "OK, we want to pay you a decent amount of money for your content and sell it." That's fine. Amazon did the same thing. When somebody says, "I want your content to start this service, and we will give you a few cents a sub," that's not good enough for me. That's not how we should be using our content. Steve Jobs is one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, and I admire him greatly, but this was not the way for CBS to go.
THR: How do you feel about the new CBS This Morning?
Moonves: I think we're different -- it's unique, and it's very good television. I couldn't be happier with my entire news division. I think [CBS News executives] Jeff Fager and David Rhodes have made a huge difference. I think the ratings will come. It's like turning around a steamship after all of these years.
THR: How long will you give CBS Films? And why has it struggled?
Moonves: We've only released six movies so far. We started slowly; we were finding our way. It's a brand new division, and we're going to keep this division small in terms of number of movies and budgets. I want to do movies for two reasons: either to make money, which The Woman in Black is doing now, or to be really proud, like I am with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I think it has a bright future, as long as we keep it small. We're not going to be competing with the majors. We should be thought of as a smaller, independent movie company within a larger media company. So when some of the people on Wall Street initially said, "Gee, the first movies didn't work," I said, "Yeah, we lost a few million dollars, but our company grossed $14 billion last year." It really did not affect the bottom line, and we're building something here.
THR: In many ways, it's opposite to the strategy you've employed at CBS, where it's very much about mass and not acclaim or awards.
Moonves: We've always said, CBS is the populist network. The critics don't always love us as much as the other guys, and the Emmy voters don't always love us as much as the other guys, though we've done OK recently. But nine out of the past 10 years, we've been the most-watched network in America. That's more important to me than getting an Emmy Award.
THR: So long as the media stops writing about how not sexy CBS is …
Moonves: They will continue to call us not sexy, and that's OK. As long as my wife calls me sexy, it's OK if journalists don't.
THR: How often do you talk to chairman Sumner Redstone?
Moonves: I speak to Sumner often and keep him posted. He's very supportive.
THR: What is the career move or decision you are most proud of?
Moonves: Coming to CBS when they were in last place from a great position at Warner Bros. was a very scary thing and made for a year and a half of misery in trying to get the schedule going. But we built it brick by brick, and the decision to put CSI and Survivor on Thursday, which NBC had dominated going back to The Cosby Show, turned out to be a great one when we finally overtook them. But I remember those days back in 1995, even though it wasn't my schedule, it still hurt to see those bad numbers. By the way, I still get the same kick in the fall waking up at 5:30 in the morning and looking at the ratings. Fortunately, we've been winning more than we've been losing.
THR: Have you called NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke to tell him that it gets better?
Moonves: I actually did. I think Steve is a terrific guy. He and I met a few times, and I told him, "It just takes time, and you guys are going to figure it out." And they will. [NBC Entertainment chairman Bob] Greenblatt is smart; he used to be part of our family [as Showtime chief]. [NBC Broadcasting chairman] Ted Harbert is over there, too, and I had a drink with him in New York last week. They know what they're doing.
THR: What's been your biggest misstep?
Moonves: There aren't a lot of them that I can point out. I'm not trying to be too cocky here, but there's not a lot I'd look back on and say, "I wish I had done that." And there aren't a lot of shows that we've passed on that I can say, "Gee, I wish we would have done that one."
THR: What haven't you done yet but would like to do?
Moonves: It would be great to own ESPN. I don't think that's going to happen. It's a great operation and good for them. But I love how we've elevated our sports division with our sports deals. We have the NFL, the NCAA basketball tournament, golf and SEC football for many years, and I love that stability. And that's also true of the people. I love the fact that people have stayed here.
THR: How do you explain that loyalty?
Moonves: It's a little bit simplistic: Treat them like you want to be treated. When you're driving to work, you should be thinking about your job. You can't be thinking about the guy in the next office or the boss with whom you might be in trouble, because that becomes all you think about rather than the next script or the actor that's reading.
THR: Depending on the season, you spend about 10 days a month in New York and the rest in L.A. What's a typical day like for you?
Moonves: When I'm in New York, I meet with the sales guys and investors a lot. And there are a lot of investor conferences. In L.A., I'm talking to the creative people more and I'm involved with the product a bit more. There's so much to do in both places, and my schedule from any given week is vastly different. It's like a three-ring circus, but for someone who has ADD like I do, it's very exciting.
THR: How do you unwind?
Moonves: I'm a very mediocre golfer, and I enjoy watching movies. What else? I have a 2 ½-year-old son plus three kids in their 20s, so I like spending as much time with all of them as I possibly can. I like to travel, although I don't get much opportunity to do that. I like to read a lot, but I don't get much opportunity to do that either. I loved the Steve Jobs book and the new Stephen King book. People ask me what I watch, and I mostly watch sports to relax on Sundays. I love reading the Sunday newspaper, too. I still like to hold The New York Times in my hands.
THR: One of my favorite Les Moonves stories is when you negotiated against your lawyer brother, Jon, who represented Everybody Loves Raymond's Ray Romano during a tense renegotiation.
Moonves: It was a very ugly negotiation. I literally had to remove myself from it, partially because I'm not supposed to negotiate and partially because [my brother] infuriated me. [Former CBS Television Entertainment Group president] Nancy Tellem took it over from there, and it got really bad. We tried not to take it home, but I did say to my mother at dinner on that Sunday night, "Your son is an asshole." My mother just laughed.