Moonves: Tradition Serves CBS

Oct 26, 2008  •  Post A Comment

It’s been a pretty ordinary, not particularly sexy fall at CBS. And that’s just fine by Leslie Moonves.
The CBS Corp. president-CEO is loving the lack of drama at his network because it’s been accompanied by a ratings development few prognosticators saw coming. One month into the 2008-09 television season, CBS is TV’s top-rated network in viewers, adults 25 to 54 and—here’s the shocker—adults 18 to 49. The last time CBS started off a season so strongly was 2004.
“Everybody was saying that the world is different, the world has changed,” Mr. Moonves told TelevisionWeek last week. “But ultimately, it turns out that it’s still about the programming…. People still want to see their favorite shows.”
Indeed, in an era of seemingly endless audience erosion, the key to CBS’ amazing autumn has been the performance of its veteran series. Shows including “NCIS,” “CSI: NY,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “Two and a Half Men” are posting ratings gains this fall compared with last season.
The network’s decision to add another night of comedy on Wednesday also seems to be working out. “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and freshman half-hour “Gary Unmarried” scored season-high ratings last week and have helped CBS improve its performance on the night.
Meanwhile, with Tuesday night newcomer “The Mentalist,” CBS can lay claim to one of only two unquestionable success stories this fall among first-year shows on the Big Four (Fox’s “Fringe” is the other). The verdict is still out on CBS’ other fall newcomers—“The Ex List,” “Eleventh Hour” and “Worst Week”—but none of the shows has tanked, either.
“You look across our schedule and we’re just really solid,” Mr. Moonves said.
That’s particularly true when CBS’ Nielsen performance during the first four weeks of the season is compared to that of its network rivals.
Among adults 18 to 49, NBC is down 19% from last fall, ABC is off 18% and Fox—cursed by bad baseball mojo—has dropped by 15%. CBS also has declined—but its 8% dip, caused in part by a decision to delay the launch of “CSI” by two weeks and the continued growth of DVR usage, seems puny by comparison.
“As long as DVRs allow people to change the way they watch TV, then slightly down is gonna be the new up, which makes it even more impressive that a lot of our shows have actually gained viewers from last fall,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS.
Of course, the season is still young.
While CBS executives see no reason the network won’t continue to compete for first place in demos for the rest of the fall, they’re also well aware that the competitive equation will change dramatically come January. That’s when Fox traditionally roars back to life with the return of “American Idol” and “24.” ABC also could be more of a factor in early 2009 since it chose to hold back most of its new development until midseason.
Mr. Moonves and other CBS executives believe the Eye network’s first-rate fall has its roots in decisions they made last winter. As the writers strike raged, Mr. Moonves and his team quietly met at least once a week to hash out various strategies for how the network would rebound quickly once the scribes returned to work.
“When the strike finally was over, we were able to hit the ground running,” Mr. Moonves said, explaining that the network “pulled out all the stops” to make sure it was the first of the Big Five to return last spring with a relatively normal lineup of scripted programming.
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler gives a big chunk of credit to her network’s producers. “They were working as aggressively as we were,” she said, noting their ability to craft “big, promotable” cliffhanger episodes to wrap up the strike-shortened season.
“It was important to have [viewers] saying at the end of May, ‘I really love these shows,’” Mr. Moonves explained. The network wanted to erase the painful memories of the writers strike as quickly as possible, reconnecting audiences to their favorite CBS programs so that the summer months could be used to promote a new slate of series.
Why Wait?
By contrast, ABC, NBC and Fox decided to hold back on returning a number of key shows (“Heroes,” “24,” “Pushing Daisies”). Mr. Moonves makes it clear that he believes that was a mistake.
“I think some of the people [at other networks] who didn’t go back into originals immediately might be regretting it now,” he said. “Some shows were off the air for eight or nine months. That’s a long time to expect people to remember to come back to a show.”
But Mr. Moonves didn’t limit his “Strike? What strike?” mentality to returning series. He also ordered Ms. Tassler to assemble as near a normal development slate as possible so that CBS could launch a full complement of new shows come fall.
“We knew viewers would be expecting new shows,” said Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Television Network Entertainment Group. “We tried to keep our focus and understand what our viewers wanted. We were extraordinarily aggressive with our development.”
That’s an understatement: CBS managed to crank out 18 pilots in just eight weeks. That’s about two-thirds of what the network usually develops for a new fall season, in about half the time.
The decision to embark on what one executive called “pilot season on turbo” came in the wake of the network’s less-than-successful attempt to diversify its lineup last year with offbeat concepts—think “Moonlight,” “Viva Laughlin,” “Cane,” “Swingtown.” None of those 2007-08 drama newcomers got a second season, leaving several big holes in the CBS lineup that needed to be filled.
Mr. Moonves makes no apologies for veering a bit off course last year, but he also makes it clear that CBS needs to stick to what it does best: big, broad shows with appeal to the masses.
“It’s OK to think outside the box,” he said. “But you don’t have to think that far out of the box.”
Ergo this season’s development slate, which is packed with shows that seem genetically engineered to fit in with existing CBS fare. Case in point: Warner Bros. Television’s “The Mentalist,” which might just be the perfect model for CBS development in the next couple of years.
Like so many CBS dramas, it’s a crime-based procedural. But it’s got a quirky character at its core, a la “Monk” or “House,” that allows viewers to connect to something other than the corpse-of-the-week aspect.
“‘The Mentalist’ is like us, but it’s not like us,” explained Mr. Moonves, adding that he doesn’t pay much attention to critics who still whine that CBS has too many crime dramas on its air.
“‘Criminal Minds’ is a procedural, but it’s as different from ‘NCIS’ as it is from ‘House,’” he said. “The audience will tell us when we’ve put on too many.”
Stability Pays Off
Mr. Moonves and his team cite two other factors as key to CBS’ strength this season: scheduling and stability.
Even in an age of video streaming and DVRs, “Scheduling does matter, “ Mr. Moonves said, tipping his hat to the network’s scheduling guru, Mr. Kahl. “We’ve been able to put new shows where they should be.”
Indeed, Ms. Tassler noted “The Mentalist” grew out of the network’s desire to develop a companion to “NCIS.” “We bought the script for that show back in July [2007],” she said.
Mr. Kahl said CBS’ scheduling strategy this fall wasn’t really much different from past years. “We always try to give each new show the best chance to succeed,” he said. “We try to pair it with an established show that makes thematic sense and can give it a solid lead-in. Then, hopefully, it’s the merits of the show that determine if it succeeds.”
As for stability, Ms. Tellem believes CBS benefits from being led by a management team that has been the same for the better part of a decade.
“With all the craziness that’s out there, you look at our management team and our programming team … and we are constant,” she said. “I think that’s really played into our success.”


  1. CBS wouldn’t know a good show if it reached up and bit them. They’re stuck in the procedural and comedy mindset, and can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.
    Viewers are becoming less and less enamored of procedural shows (CSI: Waco and Law & Order: Animal Cops). The same can be said of so-called “reality” programming (popular with networks because they are relatively cheap to produce.
    I’d like to think The Eye would figure this out sooner, rather than later, but they’re still waiting on The Great Pumpkin, Santa and the Easter Bunny.

  2. The CSIs are aging, that should alarm someone at CBS..
    Instead of pulling Streets of San Franciso and Hawaii 5-0 out of the archives..
    They should look at a contemporary relationship drama series..
    CBS has proven in the past, that it can do contemporary dramas very well..
    Please enough of the legal shows and the cop shows..now we see medical shows coming fast and furious.
    Cant we come up with more creative fare??

  3. I watch a LOT of television and Ghost Whisperer is the only thing I watch on the network.
    I loved Joan of Arcadia before they messed with the concept (the first season is brilliant, after that, not so much)
    And I was one of the five people who watched and enjoyed Moonlight. There was interesting, well thought out mythology, a character arc, characters that I liked played by actors who could act. Granted, I didn’t warm up to the concept at first and the decision to make the show bloody left me a little cold at times, but the show made up for it by creating a show I ended up looked forward to seeing. Sigh.
    Can’t stand the reality programs (although The Amazing Race is more often than not a decent watch) and I don’t think I’ve sat down and watched more than an episode and a half of any of the CSI’s… the whole enterprise is kinda blah.
    What happened to the days when you could go to CBS for quirky family dramas (or did I just dream that Picket Fences was on CBS?)

  4. CBS made the biggest mistake in their history when they cancelled Moonlight. The show was not given a chance to develop and was haunted by many changes to personnel but there were a thousand directions it could have gone. It did have the “crime solving” element that CBS seems to love so much but it softened this with romance and spiritual genre. Eventually people will grow tired of crime solving shows and they will fall to the bottom of the ratings heap because all the new shows they are introducing are big zeros. They never give a new and different show a chance to shine. Too bad for great shows like Moonlight that it was the victim of no-vision CBS executives.

  5. The verdict is still out on CBS’ other fall newcomers—“The Ex List,” “Eleventh Hour” and “Worst Week”—but none of the shows has tanked, either.”
    Only a few days after this report was published, it was made official – the Ex List *has* tanked and has been pulled from the CBS schedule after only four episodes. Being in the UK, I haven’t had the chance to watch the show yet, but I have to admit that I find the premise of a woman so desparate to be married she’ll re-date her ex’s really puts me off watching if it ever gets broadcast here. I’d also add that I really didn’t need the word “merkin” added to my vocabulary! (My thanks to whoever uploaded *that* clip on YouTube!)
    Something else that struck me was the quote from Les Moonves, “It was important to have [viewers] saying at the end of May, ‘I really love these shows,’”. Is this whay they cancelled the People’s Choice for Best New Drama?
    Vampires may be ‘outside the box’ for CBS, but there were some procedural elements to Moonlight.
    It’s just a shame that Mr Moonves and Ms Tassler didn’t have the foresight to see how popular vampires would become with HBO’s True Blood, the Twilight books and it’s imminent movie release.
    I just hope they give Alex O’Loughlin’s next project a fairer chance at getting established than they did Moonlight.

  6. “We always try to give each new show the best chance to succeed,” he said. “We try to pair it with an established show that makes thematic sense and can give it a solid lead-in. Then, hopefully, it’s the merits of the show that determine if it succeeds.”
    That’s rich! Where are you supposed to place those out-of-the-box shows? Between the body bags? That makes thematic sense? “Swingtown” after “CSI?” “Viva Laughlin” after or before what crime show? “The Ex-List” (although the premise I hated) had no survival rate. Well, maybe in the Summer if CBS wasn’t so damn hung up on blood and guts. How do you fit programs that are better suited for Lifetime when you have a Court TV appearance? Oh, that’s right. A solid lead-in. Thematic. Yeah. I gotcha. Yep. No wonder CBS killed off “Shark.” It wasn’t a crime procedural.
    What the hell happened to CBS? They used to show Magnum P.I., Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, American Gothic, Touched By An Angel, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Now and Again, Joan Of Arcadia, Dallas, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest. Now, it’s just crime show after crime show after…yep, crime show! Even late on Saturdays. I quit watching CBS. I’ve turned my attention to ABC. This is one demographically desirable the Crime Broadcast Station won’t reach out to.

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