We're still recovering from the B&C Hall of Fame soiree at the
Waldorf-Astoria. And through the haze of a wonderful night, I keep coming back
to the remarks of one of this year's honorees, Les Moonves. Showman supreme,
the Viacom co-president and CBS chairman was his usual self: off the cuff and
“I remember when the magazine was called Broadcasting,” he said. “Then it was
Broadcasting & Cable. Now it's
B&C. I just hope 10 years from now,
it's not called C.”
Don't fret, Les—especially if you keep doing what you're doing.
In the heat of November sweeps, as B&C Contributing Editor Brian Lowry notes [see
page 36], the prime time race is razor-close: Less than 0.3 separates the Big
Four among the all-important 18-49 demo. Yes, even once geriatric CBS is in the
mix. The network has wrestled Thursday prime time dominance, the ad-dollar
mega-night, from onetime champ NBC.
According to Wall Street estimates, by year's end, CBS will see
revenues north of $4.2 billion, still shy of NBC's legendary $5 billion. Much
of CBS's gains are at the expense of its 30 Rock rivals. Season to date, CBS
is up 7.6% with the 18-49 crowd; NBC has tumbled 11.1%.
(Going-out-on-a-limb department: By this time next year, CBS overtakes
NBC in all key demos and challenges its revenue leadership, too.) But this
isn't a total valentine to Moonves and CBS.
Remember, the network served time in the PR inferno: the Dan
Rather/60 Minutes' George Bush/National
Guard document scandal. When you're the boss, you take responsibility for the
good, the bad and the ugly.
Maybe this is the time for resurrection. NBC News' dominance rose out
of the ashes of the Dateline exploding-truck
fiasco and open warfare among the talent at the Today show. Even before the Rather/Bush debacle
demoralized Black Rock, CBS News was an also-ran to resource-rich NBC News and
ABC News. Moonves could turn a negative into a positive and jump-start his
moribund news division with the same single-mindedness that breathed life into
its entertainment sibling.
Moonves already has the template.
It took years for CBS to become a credible challenger to NBC. One
crucial tool in the turnaround? His patience. The list of CBS shows he has
nurtured include Everybody Loves Raymond,
King of Queens, Amazing Race, Big
Brother, Joan of Arcadia and
Without a Trace.
Yes, he may have lucked into Survivor, a show he was cool on when Mark Burnett
first pitched it, and he'll be the first to admit he had no idea
CSI would morph into three monster hits.
Still, he's a gambler. When Survivor and
the first CSI showed muscle, he moved both
to Thursday, right in the face of the then-Friends-driven NBC armada. According to one estimate,
that move will put $190 million in CBS coffers this year—at NBC's
Competitive to the max, Moonves can't help but gloat that his gambit
worked at the enemy's expense. “Once upon the time, NBC was the home of
quality. Friends, ER, Seinfeld,
Hill Street Blues,” he says. “Now
we're that place with CSI,
Raymond and Joan of
Arcadia. [NBC] is about Fear
Factor and Hawaii.”
One can quibble with that analysis. For fresh cutting-edge shows, ABC is
the place to be this fall. But Moonves gets points for being smart enough not
to program shows too cool for the room.
At the Hall of Fame, Moonves gave props to his corporate cable partner
Tom Freston, Viacom's other co-COO. But he said, with no small sense of
pride: “I'm a broadcaster first.” Indeed.