CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves Looks for Strong Upfront Ad Gains

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The mogul also explains to an investor conference why his company's premium TV outfit Showtime doesn't have the rights to Oscar winner "The Artist" under a content deal with the Weinstein Co.

NEW YORK - CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves told an investor conference Tuesday that he expects the CBS broadcast network to see strong upfront advertising sales gains in spring and reiterated a recent comment that the CBS TV production arm is in discussions about doing a show for Netflix.

He also entertained the conference audience with an Oscar joke. In touting premium TV arm Showtime, Moonves said it has strong original and movie content, including from the Weinstein Co. But he made reference to how that Showtime deal did not include foreign-language films or, as he quipped, black-and-white films. "We look pretty stupid now, don't we?" Moonves said without directly mentioning the studio's Oscar winner The Artist, for which Netflix recently got exclusive pay TV rights.

Asked when Showtime's version of HBO Go will be available, Moonves acknowledged that the company is a bit late to the party and must roll it out more quickly.

Speaking at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in San Francisco, Moonves answered several questions about the upcoming upfront, saying "we expect another double-digit upfront ad increase this year." The CBS boss later specified that he sees pricing rise in the double digits, plus the CBS network could sell a bit more ad inventory in the upfront than last year and end up selling in the low 80 percent range.

Other industry executives at the Morgan and a Deutsche Bank conference Tuesday largely weren't ready to discuss their upfront expectations, saying the annual ad mating dance in May was still months away.

Asked if the CBS network can stay on top, he recounted that it has been the top network for most years in the past 10 years, adding that he sees continued strength ahead. "We expect to be number one this year, next year etc etc," Moonves said. "We could play a pat hand and still win next year," he later said. Moonves lauded a mix of established strong shows, new and newer hits, including The Big Bang Theory. Even "a little show called Two and A Half Men is doing very well, he quipped, remembering how last year at this conference the network had "issues with the former star of the show, which we have fortunately taken care of." And while CSI may have peaked, it is still doing well in its 11th season, he said.

Discussing newer revenue streams, Moonves once again touted retransmission consent fees and said CBS is glad to be paid "lots of money from our friend [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings for our content, as well as Amazon" and other digital distributors.

He reiterated a recent comment that CBS is in discussions with Netflix about potentially doing a show for the online video streaming site. Moonves has said that CBS does not see Netflix as a competitor as it isn't a full-fledged player in original content, at least not at this stage. On Tuesday, he also highlighted that CBS itself has a solid enough schedule that it doesn't need many new shows and the company is expanding its production beyond CBS, the CW and Showtime into cable.

"We are doing about 25 percent less pilots," Moonves explained. "We are only doing 15 pilots...we are now producing a show for USA. We have a show in development, a pilot we are shooting, for Turner. And we are in discussions for Reed to do an original show for Netflix. We do have a lot of capacity...Our production apparatus is doing extremely well, and you are right, they have to find places to put their content."

Moonves also said Tuesday that he welcomes the TV Everywhere availability of TV content as content firms can get paid for digital on-demand access by pay TV operators, plus networks can count the additional viewers and charge advertisers for them.

The CBS boss later said he had one beef with Hastings though since he has said Netflix's main competitor is HBO. "What about Showtime?" Moonves said.

The CEO also answered a question about his relationship with David Letterman. Recounting that he came to CBS after problems with his former bosses, Moonves said: "We are very good friends, and thank God he is still at CBS."


Twitter: @georgszalai