Open Mic

CBS Boss Les Moonves on TV: 'We're the Best Game in Town'

Hillary Atkin Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:48 AM

As the news broke Thursday that "Two and a Half Men" star Ashton Kutcher's marriage to Demi Moore was in fact over, CBS Corp. President and CEO Les Moonves was engaged in a conversation before an audience of hundreds of people in the media business at the HRTS newsmaker luncheon at the Beverly Hilton.

Although the impending divorce was not a topic of conversation, Moonves had plenty to say about the show, and the television business in general, as he was interviewed by Brian Lowry.

"Things happen. Shit happens -- things you don't want to happen," Moonves said about replacing Charlie Sheen with Kutcher on the popular comedy. "The ratings are up and we're happy Charlie is doing well, we're happy how Ashton has done and we’re glad the chapter is closed. There's no good that can come out of things when there's rancor and lawyers involved in a television show."

Lowry started off the presentation by noting that the last time Moonves appeared before the Hollywood Radio and Television Society was in 2006 when the big news was Katie Couric taking over the CBS News anchor desk, and that Viacom’s Tom Freston had been let go because he missed out on the opportunity of MySpace. Cue laugh track.

"Technology has been a friend to the content business, and Netflix and Amazon are paying more for content," Moonves noted about the changes in the past five years, as he continually pounded the point that it's all about content.

"We're the best game in town," he said several times about the television business, which will experience a banner year in 2012, with the influx of huge amounts of political advertising revenue. "The key is to get all the eyeballs watching online to count. It's the same challenges as the newspaper industry faced, but we’re doing a lot better than they did."

CBS is known as the broadcast network with the oldest audience, but Moonves said he hates when he sees that the 18- to 49-year-old demographic is the only one that matters, noting that the average age of the "60 Minutes" viewer is 63.

"There's no such thing as an upscale 18-year-old, unless they're my kids," he said. "A big hit is watched by everyone. The idea of programming for niche is silly."

Moonves said he and colleagues like CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, who have worked together for 15 to 20 years now, look at shows holistically from their original broadcast runs to syndication to international sales to what Netflix will pay them for shows.

"But it is better to have 100% of the bucket,” he said, referring to the fact that hit shows like “Men” and "The Big Bang Theory” are produced by Warner Bros., which gets a piece of the pie.

The CBS honcho reflected on the initial rockiness of the merger of CBS and Paramount, the future of Showtime, which he sees as strong, as well as the poor track record of CBS Films. It has released five movies in the past two years, only three of which have broken even and none of which, he said, would be winning any Academy Awards.

"The TV business is much better than the film business," he said. "I'm at my core a TV guy. The TV guys don't get enough credit. They don't get to use the private plane." Unless their name is Les Moonves, of course.

He reflected back on the long run of "Everybody Loves Raymond," in which his brother represented Ray Romano in negotiations with the network and thus, he recused himself, noting that Romano was paid a lot more money than he would've coughed up as the show ran well past its prime.

"I told my mother, ‘Your son is an asshole,’” Moonves said about the situation.

When asked about CBS’s paucity of cable networks, especially compared with NBC’s, Moonves said he wished the company had more, while again stressing that the broadcast model is not broken.

Lowry commented on what he called the class of 1989: Moonves, Bob Iger, Peter Chernin, Jeff Bewkes and Howard Stringer, who, with the exception of Chernin, have all run studios, he said, while wondering whether there was something in the water at the time that made them all such industry leaders with longevity.

But Moonves jokingly shooed aside any possibility that he would be appearing before the same group in 2016. We'll see about that.