Studio City, CA, U.S.A : Leslie Moonves is the CEO at CBS, the #1 rated television network. Moosves is part of USA TODAY's Icon and Innovator series.
(Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)
by Gary Levin, USA TODAY
- The CBS CEO will lead his network to the No. 1 spot for the 10th time in 11 years.
- When he took the job in 1995, CBS was in last place.
- While the prime-time lineup thrives, CBS News lags.
NEW YORK - Leslie Moonves, the CEO of CBS, took the stage at Carnegie Hall Wednesday for a springtime ritual he relishes: Unveiling the network's fall schedule for an audience of thousands.
It helps that the network has been America's most-watched for 10 of the past 11 years, and will win this season by a margin of more than 4 million viewers over No. 2 ABC.
And though he's never shy about chest-thumping, he had an even bigger boast this year. The network is also home to TV's top series, NCIS, and its top comedy, The Big Bang Theory. And importantly, CBS will also take the ratings crown among adults ages 18 to 49, the coin of the realm in ad sales, for the first time in 21 years, unseating perennial winner Fox.
"There's no calling CBS the old-fogey network" anymore, he says, a rejoinder to the frequent Geritol jokes that greet its senior-friendly programming.
It was not always so. When he joined CBS as entertainment president in 1995 from Warner Bros. Television, the network was in last place, and had lost rights to NFL games.
"I had one of the greatest jobs in television," Moonves says. Warner Bros. "had 23 shows on the air, including ER and Friends," which had become instant hits the previous fall, extended NBC's run of "must-see" TV, and eventually were a cash machine for the studio. "Life was great. To come to the last-place network, basically on my own without my teammates behind me, was unbelievably difficult."
Worse, CBS was about to begin a drastic makeover to shed its stodgy image, earned from such stalwart shows as Walker, Texas Ranger and Diagnosis: Murder, by injecting youth appeal with newcomers such as Central Park West, a soap set at a glitzy magazine, and a sitcom called Dweebs.
The effort failed spectacularly.
Months before they'd premiered, but after he'd been hired in secret, he attended the fall programming presentation and watched in horror.
"I'm saying, 'Oh my God, we're in trouble. We had 11 new shows, and (they) weren't particularly good. Only one made it back to a second year, and that one was canceled after 13 episodes. There was a realization that there was a lot of rebuilding to do. But even though you inherit a losing basketball team, you're still the coach of that basketball team. That September, after having come off this high of being at Warner Bros. where I had all these huge hits, looking at the numbers day after day at CBS was very trying. It was a really tough period of time where I said, 'What have you done?' "
It all worked out eventually, but "I rarely watched another episode of Friends or ER after that," he says. "I just couldn't. I had an emotional response to these shows that I helped with the creation of, and I knew they were killing me. My job was to go get them. And it wasn't easy."
Former actor found his calling
Moonves, 63, entered showbiz from an unusual perch in front of the camera. Bored studying science at Bucknell University and uninterested in medical school, he started an acting career, appearing in bit parts in 1970s series such as The Six Million Dollar Man and Cannon (he played Pascual, a cliff diver who threatened to kill someone.) But he lacked the chops to turn it into a career, and now says that was one of the hardest things he has had to contend with.
"To make the realization that I wasn't going to be successful as an actor, and switch over to the production side, first with theater and then TV, was a tough call. To admit to yourself: 'You know what? You're not that good at doing this.' "
He spent years overseeing the production of made-for-TV movies, and eventually became chief at Lorimar, the studio behind Dallas. When that company was acquired by Warner Bros. he moved over to run the combined operation, selling programs to all the major networks. But the prospect of assembling a winning schedule by choosing shows rather than making them was too great, and in 1995 he moved to CBS.
A year later, he picked up military legal drama JAG, which NBC had canceled after one season, and turned it into a hit from which NCIS was eventually launched. By 1999, CBS had moved up the ranks to become the top-rated network again, and in the summer of 2000 - after first expressing skepticism - he launched Survivor, a daring competition series that stranded contestants in a jungle setting and changed the face of reality TV. Fifty-two million viewers watched the first-season finale.
That fall, CSI started slowly, but eventually built into a billion-dollar franchise after rival ABC's studio backed out of the series.
"He's a unique combination of somebody who has a very strong business sense and a very strong creative sense, which is very rare in this business," says Jerry Bruckheimer, who delivered CSI, Without a Trace, The Amazing Race and several other shows to the network along with the upcoming drama Hostages, a thriller that marks CBS' only new fall drama.
Moonves says his management style is "tough but collegial. I find good people and entrust them with a great deal of power," though unlike many big-picture guys, he also tinkers with details. "I'm hands-on, sometimes maybe more than I should be," he says, making final calls on scheduling, marketing and casting of shows, where he's always had a penchant for promotable stars. (This fall's crop will include Robin Williams and Will Arnett).
It was he who suggested both William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger for the lead roles on CSI, Bruckheimer says. While both have since departed, they proved "two key elements that helped the show become as successful as it turned out to be." Helgenberger is also returning to CBS next season in a new drama.
The Eye Network widens its gaze
Now heading a standalone public company, Moonves oversees a growing empire that includes pay channel Showtime, radio, syndication, the Simon & Schuster publishing house, billboard and online businesses, along with a half-interest in the CW network.
"To be at a company that does Homeland, that does Big Bang Theory and does Entertainment Tonight equally well is a great thing." (So is his pay package of $62 million last year, ranking him among media's most highly paid CEOs.)
But the "Eye Network," so-called for its iconic logo, remains the mothership, accounting for the lion's share of record first quarter earnings announced earlier this month. Yet the network-TV business is challenged mightily, by new technology, ever-more distracted viewers, and more nimble cable networks that program fewer hours with edgier shows that claim buzz and top awards.
"This wasn't broadcast television's greatest year in terms of new product," he says of the season that officially closes next week. "There were a few single and doubles, but there were no home runs hit by anybody." Still, he notes CBS renewed 20 shows. "Having that sort of consistency ... we're able to pull shows off a year early rather than a year late, which means our chances of success are better than anybody else's."
Thanks partly to the Super Bowl, CBS' prime-time ratings are up this year, while ABC, Fox and NBC all dropped.
But as in most businesses, technology has changed the game. Live TV viewing, with commercials intact, continues to drop as viewers time-shift on DVRs or watch shows elsewhere.
He's had plenty of PR headaches as well. CBS took heat for a 2003 miniseries on Adolf Hitler, fired Don Imus from its radio group after the host made derogatory comments about female basketball players, sued Howard Stern in 2006 in what the shock jock called a "personal vendetta," and with Warner Bros. fired Charlie Sheen from Two and a Half Men after a drug-fueled public meltdown in which the addled actor verbally attacked producer Chuck Lorre, among others.
CBS News and trying times
Among his biggest hurdles was dealing with the "mess" created with "Dan Rather and the Memogate situation," in which the network retracted a 2004 story based on unverified memos about George W. Bush's National Guard service. Rather was moved off the evening news and eventually fired, prompting a lawsuit.
It "was extremely trying," Moonves says. "We had to protect the integrity of CBS News, which had this great legacy, and I wanted to make sure we did it properly so that CBS News could thrive again, which I think they've done."
While CBS is top-rated in prime time, its news division remains a perennial laggard ratings-wise. Katie Couric, lured from Today for $15 million a year to become the evening anchor, left after a five-year deal in 2011 in what Moonves calls a disappointment. (He had first promised to "blow up" the evening-news format, but ultimately gave up on that notion.)
"She gave 100%; it wasn't the right fit. CBS News deserves some of the blame for that, (but) clearly (Scott) Pelley is working much better." And "there were a few iterations of The Early Show that didn't work, that were failures, including one that had my wife in it." (That would be second wife Julie Chen. They married in 2004, and she now hosts daytime chat show The Talk and summer staple Big Brother).
That executive isn't big on predicting the future or the next big thing. "I really don't know, we'll know it when we see it," he says, noting "the people who are so sure about business trends are usually wrong."
Says Moonves, "If you had asked me five years ago where the world would be today I wouldn't have come close to giving you the right answer. If you ask me what it's going to be in two years I wouldn't know. But it's going to be different, and we better be ready for it."