Les Moonves Lays Out CBS' Top Priority; Talks 'Idol' Offer and That Trump Comment

Leslie Moonves - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

The CBS Corp. chairman and CEO explains how his flagship net now gets less than half of its revenue from advertising, says 'Idol' economics make "no sense."

Leslie Moonves made it abundantly clear why broadcast networks are now buying nearly exclusively from sister studios: ownership has surpassed advertising as the biggest revenue driver.

"For the first time, less than 50 percent of our revenue is advertising," Moonves announced to a small room of press at his annual upfronts breakfast. "About five years ago, it was somewhere in the 70 percent range. The back end is now worth more than the front end."

CBS is not the leader in the vertical integration narrative, owning or co-owning six of its nine new orders this year, but it is officially the priority for Moonves. The charismatic chairman and CEO of CBS Corp., pulling double duty Wednesday a.m. with entertainment president Glenn Geller on medical leave, also took the morning to hype up his network's reputation for stability and lingering status as TV's most-watched.

"Sixty percent of our audience still watches live," he reminded reporters, listing off the "most-watched" stats that his many shows hold. "We had the most-watched new drama this season and it ain't This Is Us," added scheduling topper Kelly Kahl, "It's Bull." (Kahl also pointed out that over the last 20 years, CBS has had only two shows in Tuesday's 8 o'clock time slot — NCIS and JAG. ABC, on the other hand, has had 50.)

Moonves' spiel and Q&A ran quite the gamut, and one of the several highlights was his take on the current reboot culture. While noting that CBS does have MacGyver and Star Trek, which don't feature original casts, he wrote off the revivals of some past sitcoms touted at other networks this week as gimmick.

"Some of these things are trick," said Moonves, noting that they are more anomaly than trend. "The Will & Grace pilot, I understand, is quite good. The Roseanne thing is a stunt.... It's a clever idea. I think people will tune in for it."

He also expressed optimism for a future for The Big Bang Theory beyond its current two-season renewal, telling the room that he and Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara actually met with the cast before negotiations to make sure everyone was "happy." When pressed on the likelihood of the No. 1 broadcast show going on beyond its 12th season, he had this to say: "In my book, Everybody Loves Raymond closed down three years too early. You want to leave on top, but you also don't want to leave with money on the table."

There was little talk of Stephen Colbert's ratings resurgence, though Moonves did express his pleasure with The Late Show and morning counterpart CBS This Morning. When questioning eventually turned to American Idol, Moonves confirmed that CBS was approached but never really in the mix like Fox, NBC and, ultimately, ABC.

"We were offered American Idol," he said. "The price is so expensive, you need a 35 share to break even. I'm not trying to knock ABC. The economics made no sense for us, and for them it did."

More than a year after his now infamous remarks that Donald Trump "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Moonves sighed when he was asked how he felt about the president and what he does for the television business: "Has Donald Trump been good for CBS? Well, a lot more people are watching CBS News and late-night television is doing well.... I am not going to make a stupid statement like I did a year ago, that I thought people would take as a joke."