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In 1995, Leslie Moonves, then president of Warner Bros. Television, left behind Friends and ER to join hitless CBS. As the entertainment president, he would be charged with turning around a network wallowing in fourth place as rival NBC sat comfortably at No. 1. What happened next has become TV legend.
Moonves, now 62, engineered the kind of turnaround that rivals Fred Silverman’s 1970s-era work at ABC and Brandon Tartikoff‘s performance at NBC years later. By 1999, CBS had soared to No. 1 in total viewers, a perch it has held for nine of the past 10 seasons thanks to such billion-dollar franchises as CSI, NCIS and the Chuck Lorre sitcom empire.
Moonves, a New York-born father of four married since 2004 to CBS broadcaster Julie Chen, now lords as CBS Corp. president and CEO over a media company that includes publishing, radio and outdoor advertising divisions, along with CBS, Showtime, The CW (in partnership with Warner Bros.) and fledgling movie studio CBS Films. CBS Corp. generated $14.2 billion in revenue in 2011, up 1 percent from a year earlier, and its stock recently hit a 52-week high of $34.17 (his 2010 compensation was $57.7 million).
Moonves’ job requires the famously gregarious executive to keep bicoastal offices, which mirror each other in style as well as in mementos. He sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in early April at his sprawling L.A. office on CBS’ Radford lot, which includes photographs of him with two presidents, a mid-’90s magazine cover that dubbed him Mr. TV and, of course, an up-to-date primetime programming grid.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: We’re nearing the end of another broadcast season. Give us your honest assessment of CBS’ performance.
Les Moonves: We have the No. 1 new drama in Person of Interest and the No. 1 new comedy in 2 Broke Girls. Plus, we’re up in every single demographic, and we’ve renewed 18 shows. I’m pleased with the development that Nina [Tassler, CBS’ entertainment president] and her team have done, and I can’t wait to see the pilots. They better be darn good to get on our schedule, though. The selling point to our producers is that it’s harder to get on our schedule, but if you do, your chance of success is a lot greater.
THR: But there are challenges to the broadcast TV model.
Moonves: The stories about broadcast dying or it being overtaken by cable have stopped. Same goes for the stories about the Internet hurting our business. Broadcast has proved that technology is our friend. I am broadcaster’s biggest cheerleader because I genuinely believe in it. Where else can you get 20 million people a week watching NCIS or American Idol? Where else can you get 120 million watching the Super Bowl? Broadcasting for advertisers is still the best game in town, and they know it. Look, I admire a lot of the shows on cable. I think Mad Men is wonderful. I think Breaking Bad is wonderful. But let’s remember they’re about one-tenth the audience of NCIS. So I appreciate what they do, but it’s a different ballgame. And I would say the same about our Showtime shows. They have a much smaller audience, and they’re there for a different reason.
THR: So what keeps you up at night?
Moonves: It’s not really a worry, but all of the new places to put our content is pretty challenging. Being the control freak that I am, I like to know all about all of them, and I don’t. We had a presentation a couple of weeks ago about how we’re using social media, and I find it fascinating.
THR: So, can we expect to see you on Twitter?
Moonves: No. You won’t see Moonves on Twitter. Chris [Ender, his corporate communications executive] wouldn’t allow me to do it. (Laughs.)
THR: Too bad. I’ve been enjoying Rupert Murdoch’s tweets.
Moonves: By the way, I am too. I am too.
THR: Despite your title, you still weigh in on such things as casting choices and scheduling. Why?
Moonves: No. 1: It’s my passion. No. 2: It’s where I come from. No. 3: I’m very close to Nina. We’ve been colleagues for over 20 years, so fortunately she doesn’t mind my being involved, and I think I have something to add to the process. Putting the schedule together is one of the most fun things that I get to do.
THR: You still reach out to writers and producers about scripts?
Moonves: I played golf on Saturday morning, and Chuck Lorre was there because he’s a member of the [Bel-Air Country Club]. He brought a group of Two and a Half Men writers because it was their 200th episode, and we all stopped to chat on the fairway. I could tell they were happy to see how involved I still am. It was a nice moment. They were having their 200th episode party that night. I said, “Guys, I’m not going because you don’t need a network suit at your party, but I’m near in spirit to celebrate you.”
THR: In recent years, you’ve been adamant that CBS Studios co-produce CBS shows that come from any outside studio other than Warner Bros. What kind of leverage does WBTV have?
Moonves: Warners has this policy where they don’t ever want to do co-productions. But the quality of their product is great. And it’s still better to not own a Warner Bros. show that’s a hit than to own half of something that isn’t. Having hits is the most important thing. Owning them is the second-most important thing.
THR: You’re in contract talks with Ashton Kutcher and Jon Cryer to return to Two and a Half Men. How’s that going?
Moonves: It’s the normal dance that happens. You never know until it’s over, but I think everybody is predisposed to coming back, and I think it will be back.
THR: We’ve heard you’d like to lock them in for two more years. How much longer do you foresee the series going?
Moonves: I never predict length of time, but to invest in two more years of Two and a Half Men is not a big stretch. We were very pleased with what happened this year with the ratings. I think it surprised a lot of people.
THR: So it’s just a different kind of headache this year?
Moonves: Two years ago, we were negotiating Charlie Sheen’s deal, then last year was obviously the replacement of Charlie, and this year it’s the continuation. To use a line from The Godfather, which I often do, “This is the life that we’ve chosen for ourselves.”
THR: CBS is the only broadcast network without a live competition-reality show. Why not try one now?
Moonves: We had [2003’s] Star Search. It did OK. We also had Rock Star [in 2005] with Mark Burnett, which was a singing competition. They never worked for us in quite the same way. We would never rule out anything, but it would have to be very special and unique to make it on.
THR: Your wife, Julie Chen, has both The Talk and Big Brother at your network. What’s the most frequent note you give her?
Moonves: I don’t give her a lot of notes — that’s what keeps a good marriage. (Laughs.) I think she’s doing great. My only note is, “Stop talking about me on The Talk!” Because a lot of people who work for me say things like, “I didn’t know you did that” or “I didn’t know you were like that.” And I’m like, “Julie!” But it’s all good, and she knows where to draw the line.
THR: Speaking of big personalities, Keith Olbermann is now available. Any interest?
Moonves: No comment. Not my problem. (Laughs.)
THR: The CW has struggled in the ratings since its inception. How concerning are those low numbers for you?
Moonves: The CW is a perfect example of the changing landscape out there because it’s targeting a much younger demographic, and we know that a bigger percentage of that audience is watching online. So it’s hard to measure The CW by the standards you measure the other four networks. That’s why a Netflix [deal potentially worth $1 billion, say analysts] and a Hulu deal are so significant. Financially, it puts us in a much, much better position, and as soon as that starts being counted appropriately, we think that’s a great future for the network.
Read more from THR’s interview with Moonves on the next page.
THR: You famously kept CBS out of Hulu when the other broadcasters dived in. A few years later, was that the right decision?
Moonves: Absolutely. We have CBS.com, which is our own Hulu. I’ve always said that I don’t like joint ventures. It’s good to control our own properties, and it’s good to have 100 percent of the dollars that come from it. I think Hulu is a good service, and it has worked out for the other three companies, but I’m glad we went a different route.
THR: Steve Jobs tried to persuade you — unsuccessfully — to take part in Apple TV. Are you urging others not to participate?
Moonves: No. It’s very interesting. We make a lot of money from advertising, syndication and [retransmission fees]. We don’t want to take our content and establish other services that may challenge those revenue streams. So a Netflix that comes to us and says, “OK, we want to pay you a decent amount of money for your content and sell it.” That’s fine. Amazon did the same thing. When somebody says, “I want your content to start this service, and we will give you a few cents a sub,” that’s not good enough for me. That’s not how we should be using our content. Steve Jobs is one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, and I admire him greatly, but this was not the way for CBS to go.
THR: How do you feel about the new CBS This Morning?
Moonves: I think we’re different — it’s unique, and it’s very good television. I couldn’t be happier with my entire news division. I think [CBS News executives] Jeff Fager and David Rhodes have made a huge difference. I think the ratings will come. It’s like turning around a steamship after all of these years.
THR: How long will you give CBS Films? And why has it struggled?
Moonves: We’ve only released six movies so far. We started slowly; we were finding our way. It’s a brand new division, and we’re going to keep this division small in terms of number of movies and budgets. I want to do movies for two reasons: either to make money, which The Woman in Black is doing now, or to be really proud, like I am with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I think it has a bright future, as long as we keep it small. We’re not going to be competing with the majors. We should be thought of as a smaller, independent movie company within a larger media company. So when some of the people on Wall Street initially said, “Gee, the first movies didn’t work,” I said, “Yeah, we lost a few million dollars, but our company grossed $14 billion last year.” It really did not affect the bottom line, and we’re building something here.
THR: In many ways, it’s opposite to the strategy you’ve employed at CBS, where it’s very much about mass and not acclaim or awards.
Moonves: We’ve always said, CBS is the populist network. The critics don’t always love us as much as the other guys, and the Emmy voters don’t always love us as much as the other guys, though we’ve done OK recently. But nine out of the past 10 years, we’ve been the most-watched network in America. That’s more important to me than getting an Emmy Award.
THR: So long as the media stops writing about how not sexy CBS is …
Moonves: They will continue to call us not sexy, and that’s OK. As long as my wife calls me sexy, it’s OK if journalists don’t.
THR: How often do you talk to chairman Sumner Redstone?
Moonves: I speak to Sumner often and keep him posted. He’s very supportive.
THR: What is the career move or decision you are most proud of?
Moonves: Coming to CBS when they were in last place from a great position at Warner Bros. was a very scary thing and made for a year and a half of misery in trying to get the schedule going. But we built it brick by brick, and the decision to put CSI and Survivor on Thursday, which NBC had dominated going back to The Cosby Show, turned out to be a great one when we finally overtook them. But I remember those days back in 1995, even though it wasn’t my schedule, it still hurt to see those bad numbers. By the way, I still get the same kick in the fall waking up at 5:30 in the morning and looking at the ratings. Fortunately, we’ve been winning more than we’ve been losing.
THR: Have you called NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke to tell him that it gets better?
Moonves: I actually did. I think Steve is a terrific guy. He and I met a few times, and I told him, “It just takes time, and you guys are going to figure it out.” And they will. [NBC Entertainment chairman Bob] Greenblatt is smart; he used to be part of our family [as Showtime chief]. [NBC Broadcasting chairman] Ted Harbert is over there, too, and I had a drink with him in New York last week. They know what they’re doing.
THR: What’s been your biggest misstep?
Moonves: There aren’t a lot of them that I can point out. I’m not trying to be too cocky here, but there’s not a lot I’d look back on and say, “I wish I had done that.” And there aren’t a lot of shows that we’ve passed on that I can say, “Gee, I wish we would have done that one.”
THR: What haven’t you done yet but would like to do?
Moonves: It would be great to own ESPN. I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s a great operation and good for them. But I love how we’ve elevated our sports division with our sports deals. We have the NFL, the NCAA basketball tournament, golf and SEC football for many years, and I love that stability. And that’s also true of the people. I love the fact that people have stayed here.
THR: How do you explain that loyalty?
Moonves: It’s a little bit simplistic: Treat them like you want to be treated. When you’re driving to work, you should be thinking about your job. You can’t be thinking about the guy in the next office or the boss with whom you might be in trouble, because that becomes all you think about rather than the next script or the actor that’s reading.
THR: Depending on the season, you spend about 10 days a month in New York and the rest in L.A. What’s a typical day like for you?
Moonves: When I’m in New York, I meet with the sales guys and investors a lot. And there are a lot of investor conferences. In L.A., I’m talking to the creative people more and I’m involved with the product a bit more. There’s so much to do in both places, and my schedule from any given week is vastly different. It’s like a three-ring circus, but for someone who has ADD like I do, it’s very exciting.
THR: How do you unwind?
Moonves: I’m a very mediocre golfer, and I enjoy watching movies. What else? I have a 2 ½-year-old son plus three kids in their 20s, so I like spending as much time with all of them as I possibly can. I like to travel, although I don’t get much opportunity to do that. I like to read a lot, but I don’t get much opportunity to do that either. I loved the Steve Jobs book and the new Stephen King book. People ask me what I watch, and I mostly watch sports to relax on Sundays. I love reading the Sunday newspaper, too. I still like to hold The New York Times in my hands.
THR: One of my favorite Les Moonves stories is when you negotiated against your lawyer brother, Jon, who represented Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Ray Romano during a tense renegotiation.
Moonves: It was a very ugly negotiation. I literally had to remove myself from it, partially because I’m not supposed to negotiate and partially because [my brother] infuriated me. [Former CBS Television Entertainment Group president] Nancy Tellem took it over from there, and it got really bad. We tried not to take it home, but I did say to my mother at dinner on that Sunday night, “Your son is an asshole.” My mother just laughed.
HOW MOONVES MOVED UP
- 1949: Born in New York, where he is raised with two siblings by a nurse mother and father who owns gas stations.
- 1971: Graduates fromBucknell University before moving to Manhattan, where he kick-starts his acting career at N.Y.’s Neighborhood Playhouse and tends bar at Tavern on the Green (longtime home to CBS’ upfront afterparty).
- 1977: Moves to Los Angeles, where he appears in TV shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man and Cannon before shifting into a development role at Saul Ilson Productions.
- 1983: Joins 20th Century Fox, where he produces movies and miniseries, including one based on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
- 1989: Tapped as president of Lorimar TV, where he oversees series like the long-running NBC drama Sisters.
- 1993: Becomes president of Warner Bros. TV. A year later, he sells 22 series, including NBC breakouts Friends and ER.
- 1995: Moonves is named president of entertainment at CBS, in last place at the time. By 1999, the network finishes No. 1 in viewers. The next year, CBS launches Survivor and CSI.
- 2005: Newly remarried, Moonves is named CEO of CBS Corp. following the CBS/Viacom split. By 2011, CBS finishes the year as the largest-growing media stock for a third straight year.
- 2012: CBS is poised to round out the season No. 1 in total viewers for the ninth time in 10 years.
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