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Foresees Reality Glut

Mar 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

CBS will be much more picky this development season, thanks to a strong schedule and hit shows like CSI, which CBS President Les Moonves calls a nearly perfect mix of creative and commercial elements, in the second part of his interview with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi.
Moonves also says he sees a coming glut of reality shows next season, and believes there are limits to how far a network should go in terms of outrageous programming. He discusses why he thinks product placement was used effectively on CBS’s reality hit Survivor, and why he agreed to return to his roots as an actor to play himself on an upcoming episode of ABC’s legal drama, The Practice.
TelevisionWeek: These are challenging times. We’ve got reality mushrooming and shriveling from night to night. We’ve got The WB trying a total-product-placement program. How freewheeling has the thought process got to be now in regard to the role and the rights of and the partnerships with advertisers?
Leslie Moonves: There are a couple of different issues. Advertisers clearly remain a very important part of our thinking. Product placement, I think we certainly were pretty revolutionary in terms of Survivor. And it was very effective use of product placement. As you go down the road you look for other opportunities to have your advertisers be part of the process, within reason. The cautionary tale is, How far does this go? How useful can an advertiser be? How effective can an advertiser be within the body of a program? With a Survivor or an Amazing Race, it proved to be a terrific way of using our advertisers in a much more effective way. How far can it extend to a drama or a comedy remains to be seen. It’s easier for you to use it within the body of a reality show without it affecting it.
Can you have a character in NYPD Blue or CSI using a product effectively, that’s stretching the envelope a little too far at the moment. However, it’s something everybody is talking about. If TiVo truly became effective, it’s something that would become more and more prevalent where you-the lion’s share of our revenue is from advertisers-if we need to work at different ways of using advertisers, then we will, and we do.
It’s easier in reality, but we are looking at other advertising streams.
One of the things about fin-syn that these people complained about is, `Gee, you’re looking at the back-end of a show.’ Yeah, a back-end is the icing on the cake. It is not the cake. If it becomes the cake, you’ve got a big problem. If you are putting a show on purely because you own it, you are an idiot, and you will lose at the game.
TVWeek: Should use of the Time Machine, which compresses programming to create room for additional commercials, be an option?
LM: No. No. No. No. No. No. That’s inappropriate. It is inappropriate to do that.
TVWeek: UPN. At what stage are you in the makeover timetable?
LM: This is Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff and her team’s first development season. I think our pilots are much stronger than they have been in many years at UPN. UPN needs a couple of shots in the arm. We think we can have them with this development season.
TVWeek: With the focus of UPN on urban, multi-ethnic programming, what of the stations that are in smaller and not-so-diverse markets?
LM: All our development is not just geared toward inner-city, urban, multi-ethnic [audiences]. There’s a decent percentage that’s that, but there are also certain pieces of development that are much broader than that and much more open than that. Our Monday night is working extremely well, extremely effectively. Thursday, obviously, WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] works as well. The idea is to get more of a flow on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. That’s our goal. You don’t want to throw away your Monday night audience. It’s a very good night. By the same token, you do want to broaden your audience Tuesday and Wednesday night. That’s what the ultimate goal is.
TVWeek: But what if you are in a market where the Monday night lineup is just flatly not selling, not drawing an audience?
LM: Well, you can’t be all things to all people every night of the week. CBS [used to have] Saturday nights that were doing very well in the rural areas and [had] the urban people pulling their hair out, and we changed that. We’re not trying to throw away the rural smaller stations, but by the same token, we’ve got to go with what works.
TVWeek: Speaking of being all things to all people, looking at CBS development we see a lot of crime-drama development.
LM: They said the same thing to us last year and to the best of my knowledge, we have the only two legitimate drama hits: Without a Trace and CSI: Miami.
TVWeek: Is the context in which a new show would have to fit what’s driving that or is it the mind-set of the creative community?
LM: Both. There’s no question you look at what CSI has done and what CSI: Miami has done and Without a Trace has done. They’ve been very effective. How much more? I don’t know. I mean we do have some crime things in development, but we also have some other things.
The great news about our schedule? We are much more picky. We have very, very few holes to fill. When you go through our schedule, it’s a pretty solid schedule. So we’re being very specific, we’re being-we know what we need and where we need it. But I’m pretty happy where we are in March. I can honestly say I have never been this happy on March 5 as you look toward the end of the schedule.
TVWeek: Really?
LM: Never. Truly. We won sweeps by a million and a half viewers. We won it by a wide, wide margin.
TVWeek: Are you ever going to win that total-viewers argument?
LM: Well, we’re making a lot of money. That’s the only argument I care about. We’re making money. I like what our programming is. The other thing people don’t write about? We’re only 0.6, less than 15 percent, behind No. 1 in 18 to 49. How’s that? So we’re winning viewers, we’re winning households, we are very close in 25 to 54s, we are 0.6 behind in 18 to 49. We are very solid. And we’re making a big profit in prime time. I don’t know what more we can ask of ourselves. It’s working. We’ve gotten much younger. I like the hand I’m playing as much as I ever have, or as much as anybody else’s hand.
TVWeek: Have you got Everybody Loves Raymond in the house [for next season]?
LM: Not yet. We’re working on it. We’re getting close on that as well.
TVWeek: When you looked at the ratings for Fox’s Married by America, what was the first thought that went through your mind? What was your visceral reaction?
LM: [Chuckles] Obviously, I was happy to see that it didn’t-there comes a point where you’re just flooding the market with a lot of stuff, and, as usual with every form, the cream stays on the top and the rest falls by the wayside. There’s a reason Survivor remains a top 10 show in its sixth incarnation. I think American Idol is terrific, I really do. I think it’s extremely well done. Without going into much more specifics, and I don’t want to allude to that specifically, there are going to be 400 new reality shows and hopefully the bad ones are going to fall by the wayside.
TVWeek: What is going to be the peripheral damage of this thirst for reality? It’s so easy to commission and so fast to put together.
LM: Exactly. It’s the quick fix. Someone called it crack cocaine and it makes you feel better for a couple of days. But then it goes away. How long-lasting is it? You can’t repeat ’em. The residual effects, right now, as you look towards the fall, and this is something the Hollywood community is wary of, and should be, is that when you think that next fall you’ll probably have seven or eight more reality shows on network schedules than you had this year. That’s a lot of people who are out of work. That’s a lot less programming, which is why I hope it doesn’t take over the world.
TVWeek: But is there another effect of this sort of specifically titillating, tantalizing, humiliation-based programming and the thirst or appetite it creates in people? When the reality programming inevitably subsides, what do the
y want from their scripted programming? Do you have to go further, go harder?
LM: I sure hope not. I sure hope not. Look, in these jobs you do have to have some sort of a taste level in what you do. I still believe the bread-and-butter is the great drama and that’s the one that will keep coming back.
TVWeek: Name a show that is the perfect economic-creative model right now.
LM: CSI. CSI is great. Obviously it’s an unbelievably successful drama. 1) It’s unbelievably successful in first run on the network. 2) It repeats remarkably well. 3) It’s selling terrifically well overseas. 4) Great domestic deal in the United States for a drama. And 5) created a spinoff that makes money as well. So give me a lot more of those.
No denying it’s good that we own half of that show. But that’s not-our big thing is that it’s on the air. Also look what it did for Thursday night. Look what it did for Without a Trace. So it also, 6) it helped build our schedule. Those two shows on Monday and Thursday helped all of CBS. So that’s the perfect model. There are innumerable benefits to it.
TVWeek: You are doing a cameo on ABC’s The Practice. That’s intriguing because (1) you have a pilot coming from David E. Kelley, and (2) it’s your Raymond that helps stomp all over The Practice on Monday nights. How did that happen? And what’s the message here?
LM: David picked up the phone and he said, `Look, I’ve got an intriguing part for you in an intriguing episode of The Practice. You’re playing yourself.’ He told me what it’s about and I’m not going to tell you. And he said, `Look, I can get somebody to play you. But I’d rather get you to play you.’ I have a lot of respect for David and I like The Practice. I think it’s a terrific show.
And you know what, I honestly don’t believe, as much of an egotist as I am, I don’t think my name is going to boost the ratings enough to hurt Raymond. It’s fun. David’s a friend, and he’s working with us, and I respect him enormously and he asked me to do it and I thought it would be a kick.