Press Tour: Les Moonves comes out of the bullpen for CBS

It’s been more than eight years since CBS chairman Les Moonves took the stage for a CBS executive session at press tour, and even then it was unusual, as most executives at his level circa 2005 left TCA to their underlings. But with CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler suddenly unavailable due to the death of a close friend, Moonves filled in, and it was a bit like seeing Mariano Rivera come out of the bullpen to close a game in AA ball. It’s a job Moonves could do as well as anyone in his profession ever has, but also one for which he was vastly overqualified.

So Moonves was able to field basic questions about program content (he called the racism of several of this year’s “Big Brother” contestants “absolutely appalling”) and even casting (on Cote de Pablo’s “NCIS” exit: “We offered Cote de Pablo a lot of money, and then we offered her even more money”). But what was most interesting about this exec session was hearing the man in charge of the Last Real Broadcast Network Standing discuss the ever-evolving business model.

For the first time in a tenure at CBS that dates back to the mid-’90s, Moonves’ network finished the season in first place among adults 18-49 in addition to its usual success with total viewers.  After the panel, Moonves reiterated his philosophy that advertisers care about much more than the 18-49 demo, and said he was happy to get the demo win more so he would stop hearing about it than for any real monetary value. But CBS is the one network that still brings in big overall numbers for most of its shows (making ABC, FOX and NBC look like niche cable channels in comparison), and that mostly schedules in a traditional way.

But CBS has also had a huge commercial success this summer with “Under the Dome,” whose second season renewal Moonves announced at the start of the session.(*) “Dome” was financed in part through an unconventional deal where Amazon gets streaming rights to each episode only a few days after the first broadcast airing, which made the show viable given the cheaper economics of summer TV. And one of CBS’ fall shows is “Hostages,” an intensely serialized drama from Jerry Bruckheimer that will tell a 15-episode story and go away at midseason, with the hope of it returning next year.

(*) “Dome” hasn’t been as much of a creative success, but with those numbers, Moonves seemed just fine with the content. “Why can’t they be under the dome for a long period of time?” he asked. This is television.”

At one point during the panel, I asked Moonves how much longer he expected the traditional broadcast TV business model to work for CBS.

“Oh, I think it’s going to be sustainable for a long time,” he said. “‘Hostages’ wouldn’t have gone on our network three years ago, but by the same token, I wouldn’t want five ‘Hostages.’ Or, wait, talk to me in January. But it’s stepping out for us, it’s doing something different. When it achieves the level of our ‘NCIS’es or our other traditional shows, then the world will have changed.

“You’re not going to see us veer off differently,” he added. I think you’re going to see us experimenting. ‘Under the Dome’ is a new model, ‘Hostages’ is a new model. How we sold ‘Good Wife’ (into syndication), a very different model… Yes, we are traditional, although you can’t say we’re the old network anymore. But we still move, we’re pretty nimble. We look at what’s happening, and we’re able to make the appropriate deals. As much as we are a traditional network, and we are very profitable doing that, we still are open to any way of doing business and make a profit.”

Later, he noted, “Since I came into the business 30 years ago, people have been saying, ‘The model is dead.’ The model’s not dead. It’s just changing.”

“Dome,” for instance, gets a very large viewership bump when you factor in DVR users, On Demand and non-Amazon streaming, though there are still issues with how much money can be made off of those non-live viewers.

And Moonves assumes “Hostages” will appear very quickly on either Netflix or Amazon streaming shortly after its season ends on CBS, which would in theory drive even more viewers to a second season on the network.

“It’s a new world,” he said. “Every model that we’re doing is somewhat different from what we’ve done before. At the bottom is quality television, but cable television has had great success with serialized drama, and that’s been helped by the Netflixes of the world and binge viewing, and we believe that can help us.”

In the mid-’00s, Moonves had many of the CBS/Viacom cable channels, including Showtime, placed under his purview, so now he has to look at the relative advantages of both broadcast and cable. He pointed out, for instance, that “Homeland” costs more, relative to its ratings, than a network drama, but Showtime also makes a lot of money from subscriber and cable system fees that justifies the cost.

“Both (CBS and Showtime) are very successful, both are very lucrative and both are good for us,” he said.

It’s a good time to be Les Moonves, but he’s also pragmatic enough to acknowledge that the current success may not be forever. He noted the long run that NBC had with its Thursday shows – and said the failure to find a “Friends” companion signaled “the beginning of the end” – and said that one year, things may change for CBS, as well. But for now, they’ve been able to play by the old rules in a way none of their competitors can, while also recognizing that the future of television will be very different, and that they have to adapt to survive.