Moonves bets big on Last.fm network site

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CANNES -- Rupert Murdoch may have forked out $580 million for MySpace, but Leslie Moonves has a different idea about how to get involved in social networking.

In an unlikely and largely unsung deal last spring, the CBS Corp. CEO plopped down a measly (by Murdochian standards anyway) $200 million for a British-based and U.K.-manned Web site called Last.fm.

It was, Moonves told two dozen reporters at MIPCOM on Tuesday, "fascinating to us."

The site as now constructed centers around music, aggregating young people who want to connect and share content surrounding that pastime.

"These young guys who put it together are not your average CBS executive. And no, they don't wear ties," quipped Moonves, sporting a stylish blue one himself.

Moonves was here to receive the Personality of the Year Award for his international TV achievements, which include turning the "CSI" franchise into a mega-money machine for his company.

The next step in the plans for Last.fm, Moonves said, is to monetize the operation and to rebalance its fan base from largely international (70% at present) to include more U.S. folks.

More importantly, he said, the goal is to extrapolate from the music base to take advantage of CBS' considerable store of other content.

"If we can develop a site around news, entertainment, sports, where kids can share content and ideas ...," then, he suggested, the deal would be a winner.

In other related remarks, Moonves indicated that he and CBS were embracing the digital possibilities opened up in the U.S. -- he termed the relationship with iTunes worth continuing, saying, "It's found money" -- emphasizing only that he (and his boss Sumner Redstone) would expect the company to get paid for what is made available on these new platforms.

He also enthused about the cadre of young people to whom CBS has doled out $25,000 each to go out and make user-generated content. From what he's seen of their efforts, he said, "Fifteen years from now some of these guys will be running the business."

As for the unauthorized use of clips and mash-ups of material all over the Web, Moonves, unlike some colleagues at other conglomerates, said he didn't really think such usage hurt. "They're largely promotional in value: If they expose young audiences to our shows, who, say, didn't know about a series or an episode, then that's a good thing," he said.

Moonves also expounded on "CSI," predicting that the drama franchise would likely continue for another decade and noting that its ratings performance this season has been more than solid. Asked about the criticism that CBS airs too many procedurals, Moonves said that as long as they are working, and they decidedly are, there's no reason to change course.

As for localized spinoffs abroad, say a "CSI: Paris" or CSI: Rome," Moonves suggested that such initiatives are tricky.

"We did take a look at doing one in France, but they're much harder to do (than they look)," he said. "The magic doesn't always happen and I think drama, unlike reality formats or even sitcoms, is the hardest."

Pressed about CBS' concrete plans for further international expansion beyond simply programming sales, Moonves was less forthcoming. He did say that he was watching "with great interest" what other Hollywood conglomerates are doing in India, for example. But he wouldn't be drawn on specifics to invest in any properties or broadcast operations abroad.

"Would we like to have a bigger presence internationally? Well, we're not Rupert Murdoch," he said. "But there are many deals we are exploring. All over the world."

Several non-American journalists at MIPCOM had other curiosities to satisfy. One asked why CBS doesn't air shows like the New York Philharmonic. Moonves' response: "Better left to PBS; we have to have at least 10 million viewers or my boss ..."

The only testy moment came when an impassioned, if polite, Swedish journalist took Moonves to task for supposedly not caring about news, specifically for not airing reports about the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

A nonplused Moonves pointed out that CBS' "60 Minutes" had been the show to actually break that story, albeit after months of dickering with the U.S. government over the issue.

"News is extremely important," Moonves insisted. Otherwise, "we wouldn't have paid $15 million for Katie Couric."

He did admit that news at all the networks is "ratings-challenged," given that young people certainly do not rush home to watch the evening newscasts.
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