Moonves mulls 'Idol' monster mash

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CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves sounded an upbeat note in an increasingly downbeat economy, saying Thursday that his heavily ad-dependent company will do just fine amid signs of a national recession.

As he has in other recent public comments and contrary to what other moguls have said about their companies, Moonves told the McGraw-Hill Media Summit that CBS wasn't feeling the effects of a worsening economy.

Despite some hits in the smaller markets — particularly in local radio and TV — he said that network TV business and online were in fact strong, even with the recently concluded WGA strike threatening CBS' six-year winning streak in total viewers.

"Yeah, we'll finish No. 2," Moonves said, adding that there would have be to be "a major asterisk" in the rankings this season because CBS didn't have original programming from late November to early March because of the strike.

"While we're in repeats, 'American Idol' continues to be a monster," he said. "It's a phenomenon. If somebody would kill that show, I'd really appreciate it. But it's a national phenomenon, and it continues to do extremely well. It's tough to compete with it."

Moonves also vigorously defended CBS' $15 million-a-year investment in Katie Couric, whose term at the "CBS Evening News" has been anything but a win so far in the ratings. Couric's ratings have consistently trailed those of ABC's Charles Gibson and NBC's Brian Williams, and has fallen below Bob Schieffer's during his year and a half tenure in the "CBS Evening News" anchor chair. Moonves said that what had been lost by Couric was mainly 55-year-old and older men who were turned off by a female evening news anchor.

He likened it to the presidential race, saying that some Americans don't want a female anchor or a female president.

But he said that he was happy with the network's decision to hire Couric.

"We'd do the same thing today as we did then," Moonves said.

Moonves acknowledged the impact of the writers strike, which he called "100 days of hell" and hoped that there wouldn't be a job action by SAG. A member of SAG himself, Moonves said that 8,000 SAG members earned less than $1,000 last year.

"So those people are going to vote on whether they like the new contract," Moonves said. "Fine. Make sure their new-media piece raises it to $1,001."

He said he regretted that people had lost income during the strike, money that won't ever return because "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," for instance, would produce only 17 original episodes this year instead of the usual 24. He predicted that at least some writers would a few years later discover they lost more than they ever would have made.

Moonves also said that he hoped that CBS' international revenue share will rise from about 10% to about 20% within the next three to five years.

"We're much more domestic. We'd like to expand internationally," he said.

Moonves touted March Madness on Demand, which he said would take in at least $23 million in revenue and was almost completely sold. He noted that a publication had estimated that the Internet streaming of games had caused about $3 billion in lost productivity annually.

"If the U.S. would like to pay us $2.5 billion, we'll shut it down," Moonves joked.

James Hibberd in Los Angeles contributed to this report
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