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CBS CEO Leslie Moonves on Ashton Kutcher Contract Talks, Keith Olbermann's Future and the One Note He Gives Wife Julie Chen (Q&A)

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Issue 14 BIZ Leslie Moonves - H 2012
Joe Pugliese

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.

This story originally appeared in the April 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

In 1995, Leslie Moonves, then president of Warner Bros. Television, left behind Friends and ER to join hitless CBS. As the entertainment president, he would be charged with turning around a network wallowing in fourth place as rival NBC sat comfortably at No. 1. What happened next has become TV legend.

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Moonves, now 62, engineered the kind of turnaround that rivals Fred Silverman's 1970s-era work at ABC and Brandon Tartikoff's performance at NBC years later. By 1999, CBS had soared to No. 1 in total viewers, a perch it has held for nine of the past 10 seasons thanks to such billion-dollar franchises as CSI, NCIS and the Chuck Lorre sitcom empire.

Moonves, a New York-born father of four married since 2004 to CBS broadcaster Julie Chen, now lords as CBS Corp. president and CEO over a media company that includes publishing, radio and outdoor advertising divisions, along with CBS, Showtime, The CW (in partnership with Warner Bros.) and fledgling movie studio CBS Films. CBS Corp. generated $14.2 billion in revenue in 2011, up 1 percent from a year earlier, and its stock recently hit a 52-week high of $34.17 (his 2010 compensation was $57.7 million).

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Moonves' job requires the famously gregarious executive to keep bicoastal offices, which mirror each other in style as well as in mementos. He sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in early April at his sprawling L.A. office on CBS' Radford lot, which includes photographs of him with two presidents, a mid-'90s magazine cover that dubbed him Mr. TV and, of course, an up-to-date primetime programming grid.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: We're nearing the end of another broadcast season. Give us your honest assessment of CBS' performance. 

Les Moonves: We have the No. 1 new drama in Person of Interest and the No. 1 new comedy in 2 Broke Girls. Plus, we're up in every single demographic, and we've renewed 18 shows. I'm pleased with the development that Nina [Tassler, CBS' entertainment president] and her team have done, and I can't wait to see the pilots. They better be darn good to get on our schedule, though. The selling point to our producers is that it's harder to get on our schedule, but if you do, your chance of success is a lot greater.

THR: But there are challenges to the broadcast TV model.

Moonves: The stories about broadcast dying or it being overtaken by cable have stopped. Same goes for the stories about the Internet hurting our business. Broadcast has proved that technology is our friend. I am broadcaster's biggest cheerleader because I genuinely believe in it. Where else can you get 20 million people a week watching NCIS or American Idol? Where else can you get 120 million watching the Super Bowl? Broadcasting for advertisers is still the best game in town, and they know it. Look, I admire a lot of the shows on cable. I think Mad Men is wonderful. I think Breaking Bad is wonderful. But let's remember they're about one-tenth the audience of NCIS. So I appreciate what they do, but it's a different ballgame. And I would say the same about our Showtime shows. They have a much smaller audience, and they're there for a different reason.

THR: So what keeps you up at night?

Moonves: It's not really a worry, but all of the new places to put our content is pretty challenging. Being the control freak that I am, I like to know all about all of them, and I don't. We had a presentation a couple of weeks ago about how we're using social media, and I find it fascinating.

THR: So, can we expect to see you on Twitter?

Moonves: No. You won't see Moonves on Twitter. Chris [Ender, his corporate communications executive] wouldn't allow me to do it. (Laughs.)

THR: Too bad. I've been enjoying Rupert Murdoch's tweets.

Moonves: By the way, I am too. I am too.

THR: Despite your title, you still weigh in on such things as casting choices and scheduling. Why?

Moonves: No. 1: It's my passion. No. 2: It's where I come from. No. 3: I'm very close to Nina. We've been colleagues for over 20 years, so fortunately she doesn't mind my being involved, and I think I have something to add to the process. Putting the schedule together is one of the most fun things that I get to do.

THR: You still reach out to writers and producers about scripts?

Moonves: I played golf on Saturday morning, and Chuck Lorre was there because he's a member of the [Bel-Air Country Club]. He brought a group of Two and a Half Men writers because it was their 200th episode, and we all stopped to chat on the fairway. I could tell they were happy to see how involved I still am. It was a nice moment. They were having their 200th episode party that night. I said, "Guys, I'm not going because you don't need a network suit at your party, but I'm near in spirit to celebrate you."

THR: In recent years, you've been adamant that CBS Studios co-produce CBS shows that come from any outside studio other than Warner Bros. What kind of leverage does WBTV have?

Moonves: Warners has this policy where they don't ever want to do co-productions. But the quality of their product is great. And it's still better to not own a Warner Bros. show that's a hit than to own half of something that isn't. Having hits is the most important thing. Owning them is the second-most important thing.

THR: You're in contract talks with Ashton Kutcher and Jon Cryer to return to Two and a Half Men. How's that going?

Moonves: It's the normal dance that happens. You never know until it's over, but I think everybody is predisposed to coming back, and I think it will be back.

THR: We've heard you'd like to lock them in for two more years. How much longer do you foresee the series going?

Moonves: I never predict length of time, but to invest in two more years of Two and a Half Men is not a big stretch. We were very pleased with what happened this year with the ratings. I think it surprised a lot of people.

THR: So it's just a different kind of headache this year?

Moonves: Two years ago, we were negotiating Charlie Sheen's deal, then last year was obviously the replacement of Charlie, and this year it's the continuation. To use a line from The Godfather, which I often do, "This is the life that we've chosen for ourselves." 

THR: CBS is the only broadcast network without a live competition-reality show. Why not try one now?

Moonves: We had [2003's] Star Search. It did OK. We also had Rock Star [in 2005] with Mark Burnett, which was a singing competition. They never worked for us in quite the same way. We would never rule out anything, but it would have to be very special and unique to make it on.

THR: Your wife, Julie Chen, has both The Talk and Big Brother at your network. What's the most frequent note you give her?

Moonves: I don't give her a lot of notes -- that's what keeps a good marriage. (Laughs.) I think she's doing great. My only note is, "Stop talking about me on The Talk!" Because a lot of people who work for me say things like, "I didn't know you did that" or "I didn't know you were like that." And I'm like, "Julie!" But it's all good, and she knows where to draw the line.

THR: Speaking of big personalities, Keith Olbermann is now available. Any interest?

Moonves: No comment. Not my problem. (Laughs.)

THR: The CW has struggled in the ratings since its inception. How concerning are those low numbers for you?

Moonves: The CW is a perfect example of the changing landscape out there because it's targeting a much younger demographic, and we know that a bigger percentage of that audience is watching online. So it's hard to measure The CW by the standards you measure the other four networks. That's why a Netflix [deal potentially worth $1 billion, say analysts] and a Hulu deal are so significant. Financially, it puts us in a much, much better position, and as soon as that starts being counted appropriately, we think that's a great future for the network.

Read more from THR's interview with Moonves on the next page.