Eye to eye with Moonves

The CBS boss talks about his network's renaissance —and UPN's future

Since joining as president of entertainment in July 1995, Les Moonves has transformed CBS from the network of Murder, She Wrote
and Diagnosis Murder
into the home of hipper, younger-skewing shows like Survivor
and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Moonves, who is now president and chief executive of CBS Television, oversees a vast empire, including CBS News, CBS Sports, the CBS and Paramount TV stations, King World and CBS International. Earlier this month, he added oversight of UPN to his ever-growing list of Viacom responsibilities.

Prior to joining CBS, Moonves ran Warner Bros. Television, where he oversaw the development of ER, Friends
and many other network hits. The charismatic former Broadway actor brought much of his Warner Bros. staff with him to CBS, and nearly all are still with Moonves today at CBS. BROADCASTING & CABLE's West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Schlosser talked with him last week about his plans.

You opened your meetings with the television critics last week by apologizing for being boring because you're still around. You and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem are the same tandem they've had to deal with every year since 1995. Why have you survived and thrived?

Obviously, we have had a certain amount of success. I think we had a specific game plan. I've also been fortunate that I have had a great relationship with my upper management, whereby I've felt comfortable to do the job that I wanted to do, and Mel [Karmazin] has throughout given me great support.

Are you worried that, by taking on the added role with UPN, you might take your eye off the prize?

That's one of my concerns, and it is an issue to make sure that each network gets taken care of properly. The idea is to work together and utilize the resources of both, while maintaining separate programming agendas. … That's really a generalization, but everybody is aware that whoever is getting involved with the new network has to do it properly and that there is a fine line to walk without shunting your CBS duties and making sure UPN doesn't get short shrift either as a second-class citizen, which it isn't and clearly won't be. My first priority at UPN is getting an entertainment president there that is dedicated to the programming and scheduling of that network.

There are obvious ways to join UPN and CBS. Why not King World and Paramount Domestic TV, Viacom's two syndication units?

They are absolutely going to stay separate. These are two extraordinary companies. Both of them are making a lot of money. They are both doing a great job. This is a case where, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. [Paramount's] Joel Berman is a great executive, Roger King is the best salesman in the business. You look at the rosters of shows each side has, and there is no reason to do it.

Ever since Jeff Zucker arrived at NBC and "supersized" Friends
to take on Survivor, it seems like you guys have started a new Hollywood rivalry. What do you think of Zucker, and is there a renewed rivalry between the two networks?

I don't think the rivalry has ever stopped. When I first got to CBS, NBC had been in first place by a lot for a long time. They were always kicking sand on us, and we had nothing to fight back with. Then we got a couple of weapons, and we started standing up to them.

I like Jeff Zucker. I think he is a good guy, I think he is very smart, I think he enjoys the competition just like I do. I think he has the right attitude about it: Like, let's have some fun here. I don't always agree with some of his moves, but I think he is a great competitor, and I think he is doing a very good job there. By and large, he brings fun to it, and I don't mind most of what he does.

In November, CBS had its best sweeps finish in over 10 years in adults 18-49. Is reaching the top spot in that key demo attainable for CBS in the near future, and is that really a goal for you?

I said this the first day I walked in the door: I don't think we will win 18-49 while I'm here. That said, however, we have closed the gap to our closest margin. It's down to like half a ratings point or a 0.6, the closest it's been in over 10 years.

Adults 18-49 is not the Holy Grail. We are booking less than 50% of our money based on 18-49. We are selling shows very differently, which we were doing even before we had our success in the demo. A show like 60 Minutes
doesn't do well in adults 18-49 but still makes a great deal of money for CBS, and it's still a quality show with top-notch advertisers paying top-notch dollars for it. So the idea is to sell shows on a different basis and sell your strength. I think the easiest thing for Madison Ave. to do is rely on 18-49. Yes, we have tried to get younger. It's been our philosophy from day one, but not at the expense of everything else.

Everybody in the TV business is talking about saving money these days, but you have said that CBS will not cut the license fees it pays the studios for dramas and comedies, while NBC is saying it wants to pay no more than $500,000 an episode for many shows in the future. You've also stated that CBS will produce the same number of pilots as in the past. With Mel looking over your shoulder, how is that possible, and are you making cuts in other areas?

I never said blatantly that we are not going to change license fees, but I don't think hours can be done for $500,000. Each show will be done on a case-by-case basis. There is no question that we have to reduce license fees. I agree with that. But I don't think you can make blanket statements that, from now on, we are never going to do an hour for more than X. We are watching our costs very carefully. …

We believe in pilots. We think pilots are your lifeblood. You have to play your odds: There are going to be certain pilots that work and don't work. The year I did ER
[at Warner Bros.], I had a pilot that I would have bet the house was a better pilot than ER. Cast, writing, director, locale, theme, everything. The two pilots came in, and I said, "What happened? This thing is a piece of garbage." So I think you've got to leave yourself the ability to get shows on the air. A big hit, a CSI,
a Raymond, pays for an awful lot of pilots.

You took a big gamble at CBS last spring by holding out a lot of your advertising inventory and hoping that, by the time the season started, the scatter market would be better. You now say that worked out, but you've also said that the CBS stations got hit harder. How bad was it at the station level, and do you believe CBS took the right gamble on this?

It wasn't that bad. The stations are now showing a great deal of recovery right now in the first quarter. In the fourth quarter, they struggled a little bit, as did stations throughout the country. The great news is, our stations did outperform the other markets. In other words, there is a number that indicates that advertising rates at stations are down X in just about every market, and our number was better than that.

But it's taken a while to recover. Look, the economy was down, and then 9/11 hit. We were betting on (A) the economy improving and (B) that our schedule would be good. So we were betting on ourselves. At the beginning of the year, we were a little nervous; after 9/11, we were even more nervous. By the end of the year, it was late—the money came in late, it came in in December—when we started our streak. I think the November sweeps helped immensely: Our numbers were way up during sweeps.

Would you do the same thing again during the upfronts?

Absolutely! Even more so today. Once again, you are betting on yourself. You are betting on the economy, but you are also betting on CBS. I think one of the reasons we felt as strongly as we did is, we felt we had good product. It's not to say that NBC, which sold more of their inventory [in advance], hasn't paid off as well, because they have done OK.

By the way, the argument is, would they have done a little bit better if they held a little bit more back, which we will never know. But we are very pleased with how it came out.

Your network struck a new deal with affiliates earlier this month on repurposing. Is it true that CBS can now repurpose up to five hours of prime time programming per week and only two of those hours can be on UPN, three on non-broadcast outlets?

Once again, I don't want UPN to be thought of as CBS2. That's not to say there won't be some opportunities for repurposing. And, by the way, I'd be shocked that there are five hours that are repurposed, certainly not in the immediate future. There may be a few.

[Affiliates] are contributing to the rights fees we are paying to the NFL, and, in exchange, they wanted certain restrictions on repurposing. It's about cooperation between the network and its affiliates. ... By the way, there aren't that many shows that are compatible on both networks. Both are sort of going for very different demographics.

I've heard you offer different reasons why CBS and UPN should be brought together. What is the key element that CBS brings that UPN hasn't had in the past?

There are a few things. First and foremost, it's economic. UPN didn't make money last year. I think they made great strides programming-wise with Buffy
and Enterprise
and, a couple years back, with the WWF. These are shows that people do want to watch.

The question is, how do you take these shows and maximize your revenue? Clearly, having sales forces work together. The CBS guys not only have 22 hours of prime time, they have the NFL, the NCAA, Letterman, The Early Show, CBS News, daytime—so it's just clout, pure and simple. It gives a great advantage for just selling the same product, and it will drive the CPMs up.

Another cost saving, UPN used to have to go outside to get their promos shot or produced. We have that here in the building. So it's an immediate cost-saving; in addition, there is a much more hands-on process creatively.

You say you own only two hours a night during the week. How about expanding the number of hours UPN programs per week, adding weekend nights?

That is going to depend on station groups. We control stations that control 20% of the country at UPN; there are still stations that cover 80% of the country that are independent. Any expansion would certainly have to be worked through with the Fox station group, which owns another 20% and a lot of other affiliates. That's something that could be discussed but is a little bit down the road.

Dean Valentine has been let go, and you have stated that there will be an entertainment president running UPN in the not-so-distant future. Will that person come from within CBS?

There is a short list, but I can't say much more. Hopefully, within a month, we will have the new president named. That's my goal. The person will take the title of president of UPN Entertainment, just like president of CBS Entertainment.

Give me some idea of future synergistic plans.

I don't think we have tapped into the library like we possibly could with all of these outlets. We have a great library. CBS sold their old library to Paramount, so it's all in the same family. There is a great bunch of properties available that we can possibly tap into and go back a little ways with. The more music we do, the more we are combining with MTV and VH-1.

There is a lot going on, and, you know what, in our staff meetings, that's an awful lot of what we talk about. Mel has been a great facilitator on this front. You not only get brownie points, but you get more than brownie points for doing it. It's encouraged, it's rewarded.

News Corp. now owns the major UPN affiliates in top markets like New York and Los Angeles through its acquisition of Chris-Craft. How does News Corp. factor into the future of UPN?

I have spoken with both [News Corp. President] Peter Chernin and Mitch Stern, head of the [Fox] station group, about this. Peter Chernin called me up, he's an old friend, and he said, "This is my dream come true. I'm your biggest affiliate." (laughs) So we talked about all sorts of issues. Nothing major will happen without their understanding and their knowledge. Certainly, the door is open.

We already have major pieces of programming from Fox. The door was open before, and the door will be even more open in the future.

Have you really thought about the significance of becoming the first executive to run two networks at one time?

I did sort of sit back the day after it happened and say, "This is pretty amazing." But you don't look at history while on the job. There are days when I sit back and say, "Who was great in this business? Who do I want to be compared to? I sort of want to be included with [the late Brandon] Tartikoff, Fred Silverman and Grant Tinker to a certain extent.

I guess the answer is that none of them had this opportunity to play on two playing fields with very different demographics. ... I think I would like to be remembered for running successful networks, not running two networks.

So we should hold off on the Moonves presidential library?

Yeah, for a while.