CBS' Leslie Moonves: We Are Not the 'Bastard Step-Child' of the Industry

Les Moonves - H 2013
Monty Brinton/CBS

Pinch-hitting for CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, who was called out of town unexpectedly after the death of a close friend, CBS Corporation president and CEO Leslie Moonves offered media reporters gathered for the network's Television Critics Association press tour session a candid and at times pithy assessment of the network's status and the state of the industry overall.

Long broadcast television's biggest booster, Moonves pointedly disagreed with NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt's assertion earlier in the week that "flat is the new up" for network television enduring years of declining ratings. 

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"I don’t necessarily agree with that," said Moonves. "We’re confident we’re going to be up this year -- we were up last year."

CBS finished last season up among total viewers and topped all broadcast in the 18-49 demographic for the first time in more than 20 years. But the network was down in the demo, though its decline (3 percent) was less pronounced than its competitors.

"I also don’t think we’re the bastard step-child of the entertainment business," added Moonves, adding that SVOD and international demand for American television content is changing the business. "You can't say we are the old network anymore; we are traditional in how we approach the business, but we are still pretty nimble. We are open to any way of doing business as long as we can put on great shows and make a profit."

Eleventh-hour Time Warner Cable deal?

With the midnight deadline looming for CBS and Time Warner Cable to reach a renewed carriage agreement, Moonves admitted that the negotiation has been "very difficult" and noted that 15 minutes before he took the stage at the Beverly Hilton, he was on a cell phone call to New York. "Conversations are going on," he said, "it's been a very difficult negotiation." The companies are at loggerheads over retransmission consent fees. TWC, the nation's second-largest MSO after Comcast, pays CBS well under $1 per subscriber per month despite the fact that CBS is the nation's most watched network, with big event programming including the NFL and the upcoming Primetime Emmy Awards. "We feel we should be paid for our programming," concluded Moonves.

We are not the "bastard stepchild" of the industry

Moonves acknowledged Greenblatt's point that broadcast dramas do not receive the same love from Emmy voters that cable dramas get. In fact, a broadcast series has not been nominated for best drama in two years, while Fox's 24 was the last network drama to win the outstanding drama series Emmy, in 2006. But Moonves does not seem bothered by the perennial snub. "It's hard to put The Good Wife in the same category as Game of Thrones," said Moonves. "Game of Thrones probably cost three times as much to make and takes three times as long to shoot. The competition from cable has become pretty extreme. The cable shows get a lot more attention for a lot fewer numbers. And that's OK."

We don't need drama at 11:30 p.m.

Following on Greenblatt's acknowledgement that the network would like to keep outgoing Tonight Show host Jay Leno at NBC in some capacity, Moonves quipped: "I heard a rumor that they were gong to put him at 10 p.m." But seriously, despite getting bested in the ratings by Leno, CBS is fully committed to David Letterman even as the late-night landscape continues to change significantly. "I consider David Letterman the best guy in late night," said Moonves. "He's the dean; he's the best there is. Other than Johnny Carson, he's probably the best there ever was. We like the stability of the relationship. He's our guy. And despite what people think, we don't like drama at 11:30. Dave is still making money for us. He still does the best show. And we're very happy to have him."

We'll continue to experiment with limited series -- but not too many

Observing the success of The Following and coming on the heels of its own hit 13-episode summer event series Under the Dome, CBS will bow the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced 15-episode Hostages in September. But Moonves said the network is not abandoning its traditional 22-episode-season approach. "The world has certainly changed because of Netflix and Amazon and all the players that are in that space," said Moonves, noting that SVOD services facilitated binge viewing. "We've generally avoided serialized shows," he continued. "At the bottom of it is quality programming. Cable has had a lot of success with serialized television. I think it's going to be sustainable for a long time. Hostages wouldn't have been on our air three years ago. I don't want five Hostages," he said, and then added, "Well, talk to me in January."

The behavior in the Big Brother house is "absolutely appalling"

Moonves has watched every episode of Big Brother, the show hosted by his wife, Julie Chen. "My wife would kill me if I didn't," he added. But while he finds the racist comments of some castmembers this season personally "appalling," he believes the network had handled the situation appropriately. An Internet and viewer uproar over the comments -- which resulted in a deluge of e-mail complaints to CBS -- spurred the network to insert a disclaimer prior to its broadcasts. "I think we've handled it properly," Moonves said. "It makes us uncomfortable."

We offered Cote de Pablo "a lot of money" to stay on NCIS

CBS Studios did everything it could to keep NCIS star Cote de Pablo, who has been on the show since its third season. "We offered Cote de Pablo a lot of money -- then we offered her even more money," said Moonves. "We really didn't want to lose her -- we love her. We think she's terrific. We obviously were in discussions and ultimately she decided she didn't want to do the show. It was her decision. We don't like losing anybody. We did everything humanly possible and we exhausted every opportunity. Ultimately she decided she didn't want to do the show." De Pablo's character will be written out of the show in the first few episodes of the upcoming 11th season. NCIS is CBS' most watched drama, regularly attracting more than 20 million viewers each week.

Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie