Les Moonves Defends 'Moderate' Stephen Colbert From Attacks on the Right

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Les Moonves

"He's a great social commentator, and that's sort of what we want," the CBS CEO said Wednesday.

CBS chief executive Les Moonves said the political right has nothing to fear from Stephen Colbert, even though the comedian has built his reputation on making fun of conservatives.  

"You know what? Ironically, Stephen Colbert is much more moderate than people think he is," Moonves said Wednesday at the Milken Institute Global Conference. "He's a great social commentator, and that's sort of what we want. That's sort of what David Letterman has been."

Moonves was speaking on a panel called Entertainment: The Big Picture, which was moderated by Janice Min, co-president of Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter.

"Are you concerned," asked Min, "about the political views he has expressed on Comedy Central?"

"If you're referring to remarks by Rush Limbaugh that we've attacked the heartland of America, I would respectfully disagree with that assessment of who Stephen Colbert is," Moonves said. "As one reporter put it, 'So, suddenly Rush is going soft on Letterman?'"

RELATED: Full Coverage From the Milken Global Conference

Moonves' reference was to Limbaugh's April 10 show when the conservative radio host told 15 million or so listeners that "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America" with its pick of Colbert to replace Letterman when he retires as host of Late Show With David Letterman in 2015.

"No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values. Now, it's just wide out in the open," Limbaugh said that day. "It's the media planting a flag here … they've hired a partisan, so-called comedian to run a comedy show."

Moonves, on Wednesday, talked up Colbert's comedic skills and seemed confident that he'll attract a large and politically diverse audience.

"We're looking forward to the interest Stephen is going to bring. He's very smart, he's very funny, and it's going to be exciting," he said.

The CEO also acknowledged, though, that late-night television does not make as much money as it once did.

"Late night is not what it used to be during the days of Johnny Carson and even the early days of David Letterman," Moonves said. "It was much more of a profit center. The last few years it's been more about bragging rights."

He also addressed his decision to name Letterman's replacement just a week after the host announced he'd quit next year.

"When Letterman announced that he was going to be gone, it was really important for us to fill that void and fill it quickly," he said. "We didn't like the rumors that were out there, especially some of the names that were throwing their names out there -- people that might not have been at the top of our hit parade -- so we needed it done quickly."

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com