Moonves: 150 Million Reasons to Love the Election

CBS president and CEO optimistic about broadcast business, new media, upcoming election-ad revenues.
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CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves flew the broadcast flag before jittery investors in New York Wednesday, repeatedly asserting that the company is exceptionally well-positioned both for the uncertain economic landscape now and for the sunnier days down the road.

Moonves acknowledged that the broadcast business is in a state of serious flux as online consumption increases dramatically, adding that recent moves in the interactive space, such as the company’s acquisition of CNET, put CBS in a strong position.

Coupling a growing Web business -- Moonves forecast $650 million in interactive revenue this year -- with traditional television had the CBS boss bullish on the business. “We’re in a state of transition,” he said, “but having said that, I like being in the network business, with its big-tent properties.”

Moonves spoke at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia XVII Conference Wednesday afternoon. In between presentations, shell-shocked bankers traded theories on the demise of Lehman Bros. and bailout of AIG. Moonves referenced the crises right off the bat: “It’s an interesting week to be here,” he told his interviewer, Mark Wienkes. “Can I ask you questions?”

Moonves said political spending was heating up at the CBS-owned stations and stressed that it’s historically a fourth-quarter event, not a third-quarter one. He predicted a $150 million political windfall at the stations -- particularly those in Pennsylvania, Florida and California, which is not a swing state but has a number of hot-button issues on the ballot. The campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was circulating a fund-raising e-mail Wednesday saying that it planned to spend $39 million on the Florida campaign alone.

“We are very well-situated for this election,” he said.

He was also optimistic about the Eye’s fall season, singling out Worst Week and The Mentalist among the CBS debutants.

Moonves also credited reality forefather Survivor for reaching its 18th installment. “Who ever thought we’d do Survivor 18?” he asked the room. “I didn’t. I didn’t think we’d do Survivor 2.”

The CBS chief provided an update on CBS’ slate of retransmission-consent negotiations. He said 25 deals had been inked in the past 18 months -- without incident, he added -- and he was optimistic that pacts with Cablevision Systems and Dish Network would be ironed out in the near term. “Discussions so far have been good,” he said. “We want it all to be friendly.”

Moonves also: called the recent analog-TV shutoff in Wilmington, N.C., “very encouraging”; said digital-video recorders were a net positive to the TV business for boosting viewership and perhaps even making commercials better; and was excited to send the likes of Medium, Ghost Whisperer and Numb3rs into the syndication world.

He even plugged the competition when making a point about broadcast television’s ability to draw huge, live crowds, saying that NBC did a superb job on the recently concluded 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

“It’s one of the few times I’ve rooted for NBC,” he said with a smile. The Games’ blockbuster ratings, Moonves added, “spoke to how powerful the medium is.”

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