While the Hollywood Radio & Television Society (HRTS) Luncheon Series are usually group panels to discuss the nature of the entertainment business, today's luncheon featured a compelling one-on-one conversation between Leslie Moonves, President and CEO of the CBS Corporation and Variety's Brian Lowry. During the chat, the two men discussed everything from Netflix, the 2012 election, Blue Bloods and the value of its demographics and Moonves' happiness with finally closing the door on the "Two and a Half Men" behind-the-scenes drama.
1:04 PM - Since September 2006 was the last time Moonves did an HRTS luncheon (with Charlie Rose then), where does he think we are in 2011? "We were talking about platforming at that time. We were talking about what happens with our content and where we were going and, once again, the news is always dire for the broadcast networks. I've heard since I've been in this business the networks are dying, the networks are dead [and] technology is going to overwhelm us and frankly that didn't happen. In every instance, technology has been a friend to the content business... I think the great news was then and was 25 years ago and is today it's about producing great content, selling it all over the place and technology is a good thing for content providers."
1:06 PM - In talking about original programming coming to Netflix, Moonves had said in 2006 that they can't do what we do. What does he think now? "I don't know what's going to happen. Look, it's an odd thing to me to read a pilot and order 44 episodes. That's something we wouldn't do. I've seen about ten thousand pilots that have everything right about it but you don't sort of jump until you absolutely have to... I still feel like we're still the best game in town."
1:08 PM - Brian asks about the outlook of the economy and some recent stories that say that CBS is perceived as vulnerable to advertising than some of the major players. "They keep saying that. Look, of all major media corporations, we are the one that has the highest percentage of our revenue from advertising more so than the other guys. So anytime there's a blip in our economy or the guy in Greece blows his nose it affects CBS. The good news for us is despite the analysts saying advertising is slowing down and there's a weakening in the economy, we're not seeing that in network advertising."
1:10 PM - Speaking of the 2012 election, Brian says "I think I read the other day is that they're expecting 2.5 billion dollars spent on advertising for the next election... how big of a benefit is that to [CBS]? Les replies, " Our system is our system. It's a terrible thing to say but I've said it before but sometimes the amount of contention that is going on in Washington is very good for our business... whether campaign reform should happen or not, this is our system, we play by the rules, we like it and it obviously helps our business [and] we can't wait for 2012. It's going to be a banner year for us and the other broadcasters."
1:12 PM - On the once-younger networks like ABC, NBC and FOX getting older, Brian asks how Les sees that in terms of CBS, which is often seen as "older?" Les says, "As I've always said, even when we were in desperate last place, just basing the world on 18-49 is an untrue measure... we don't sell our schedule solely to 18-49. We sell it all sorts of different ways. The average age of the '60 Minutes' viewer is 63 years old. There are no 20 year olds or 30 year olds watching '60 minutes.' He adds, "I think the baby boomers have gotten bigger, they've gotten older, I think our attitudes is always... a big hit is watched by everybody, even the big 18-49 year olds. 'American Idol' is not only watched by 18-49, it's watched by 80 years old and it's watched by 15 years old, it's watched by everybody. So the idea of programming just for a niche audience by a broadcaster is silly.'
1:14 PM - A show like 'Blue Bloods' does 11-12 million a week, Brian cites. Do you ever see a day when you'll be able to get more income for those viewers over 50? "Absolutely," says Les. "'Blue Bloods' is a very profitable show. As you said, demographically it doesn't do that well but, by far, it's by far the highest rated show in terms of viewers on Friday night... you sell where your strength is. 'Blue Bloods' will be at Friday night at 10 o'clock for a long, long time."
1:16 PM - Brian asks, "Do you see yourself getting paid for shows much beyond what you already are?" "There's no question," says Les. "We use this phrase a lot - the content food chain. The biggest piece of that is still broadcast advertising revenue. Then the second piece is syndication both international and domestic, then you get into the Netflix of the world, the retrans, etc., etc., etc. These are all good businesses. When you look at a show you look at it holistically now. When you look at a show like 'Blue Bloods' not just what it's making on Friday night but you look at what it's making internationally, what it's going to make domestically, what Netflix will pay for that show - or Amazon or anybody else - when it goes off the air. This is a good way of looking at it."
1:19 PM - Brian brings up that under Comcast, NBC has touted the Symphony program, which is their take on Synergy, where all divisions of the company cooperate with each other. What does Les think of that strategy? "Synergy is an overused word," he says. "There's a lot of crossover between divisions, they work well together. Their first job when possible is to help a sister company. We won't take a whole lot of cable advertising for CBS but damn if we won't promote 'Homeland,' which I think is the best new show on television."
1:21 PM - Does Les miss Jeff Zucker and after laughs from the crowd Brian clarifies does Les miss Jeff Zucker being at NBC. Les answers with "I'm not going comment on that question. My friends at the Conan O'Brien table are over there looking at me very seriously. I miss Warren [Littlefield] more... they are our different competitors. Jeff succeeded at some things, didn't succeed in others but it's fine. Bob Greenblatt is my friend."
1:22 PM - Les reflects back on the Viacom split. "I think it worked out well for both sides. At the time, it was a little bit cantankerous and there was some hard feelings but it was part of our strategy that we wanted to pay less for motion pictures and I think that strategy has absolutely paid off because the movies that get to Showtime or HBO are sliced and diced many more ways than they were before. The strategy was clearly to invest more in original programming [and] that's where Showtime was going to show itself in the best light and not by using old movies or regurgitate movies. I think that strategy has worked out really well for Showtime. I couldn't be more pleased with what David and the team is doing over there. The programming is sensational. I think more people are talking about the 'Dexters', the 'Homelands' and the 'Weeds' than they would 'Oh, did you see the fourth run of that movie'... I think it ended up being a win-win for everybody.
1:24 PM - On Les's outlook for the future of people paying for pay channels like Showtime? "All I know," Les says, "is over the last five years Showtime has gone from 13 million subs to 21 million subs... Showtime has gone up every single year... so, once again, it's about the product. If you give them product you can't get elsewhere that they want to see, they're going to pay for it.
1:25 PM - Brian mentions that CBS Films has had a rocky start. What has Les taken away from that experience? "We started the film company, we have Showtime, we have the ability to promote it... once again it comes down to the content... they aren't movies that I'm proud of and I'm proud of the content on CBS. I'm proud of the content on Showtime and I often say, I say this often, 'The TV business is much better than the movies." Brian asks "Predicated on what?" to which Les replies with a smile, "Predicated on how well our TV divisions are doing and how bad the movie division is doing. It's pretty basic."
1:30 PM - "There seems to be so many issues that are outstanding and I'm not getting any feel for this," says Les of the NBA lockout and the chance it may not air on CBS. "The NFL negotiations I felt a lot closer to... the NBA, we're not really a player there. Do I think they'll be back? Yes. I don't think they're going to give away the entire season. I think that would be silly on both sides."
1:34 PM - Is the broadcast network business going to become a niche business? "I still believe in the power of network television there's no question," Les says. "Look, NBC is having a rough year but they're through a transition. It's a whole new management team. They're going to be better next year and better the year after and they're going to be very successful. ABC had a few new hits, FOX is doing great, we're doing great right now... I talk to advertisers all the time. There's something that we give the audience that can't be done by cable. You look at those numbers. By the way, there's fabulous work being done on cable but you look at those numbers. 'Mad Men', it's a spectacular show [but] it's watched by about 10% of the people that watch 'NCIS.'"
1:36 PM - Brian asks if Les thinks the Emmys should be split up with broadcast and cable. Les offers, "The Emmys are what they are and they award quality. My only gripe is what is shown on the air. I think there's a better use of the time and some of the things that they do but I don't think it's unfair that some of the cable shows get the awards they get, they deserve them."
1:37 PM - Regarding "Two and a Half Men," Brian mentions we're about 10 weeks into the change on the show and it looks pretty solid. How much did you want that situation be resolved if it could have been without changing the cast? "Things happen. One thing you know from being in this business as long as I have is shit happens. There are things you don't want to happen. It was unfortunate... I'm extremely pleased the ratings are up from where they were a year ago... I'm happy Charlie [Sheen] has a show with a good showrunner at a very good studio, Lionsgate. He's going on, we wish him well. I'm more than happy how well Ashton has done, other than his comments about Penn State, with the show and how Chuck [Lorre] has done the show. The numbers are terrific and I'm glad it's a chapter that's closed. Les also adds that he says the show could last with its current numbers for many, many years.
1:43 PM - "People find quality programs," says Les when asked about network branding in prime time. "I think the quality comes in, find its way to the top and, to tell you the truth, it doesn't matter what network it's on. The brands are the programs, not the network as much as we like to say 'Oh, they're coming for CBS.' No, they're coming because it's 'NCIS' or '2 Broke Girls' or '60 Minutes.' They're going to watch 'American Idol' or they're going to watch 'Modern Family.' They're not watching those networks."
1:44 PM - Brian asks how much does Les still obsess over the little stuff. "Every day of my life," Les says of getting up every morning and looking at the ratings. "It's still exciting the first three weeks of the television season. I still get a thrill out of it... I still look at it every day. I look at it on Sunday morning even though I know the Saturday numbers are going to be horrible for everybody. I still enjoy it. I enjoy the game, I enjoy the competition and you know what? I'm really proud of what our people at CBS have done with this schedule and the programs we're putting on. I think the results speak for themselves."
1:46 PM - Les has had primarily same team with him at CBS, Brian points out. How much of that stability is responsible for the success of the network? "I think there's no question about it," Les says. "I think the closeness we feel of having worked together for 15-20 years, the shorthand, we've been through so much together, I think we trust each other, we like each other. There are mistakes that we made 15 years ago that we wouldn't be making today."
1:49 PM - "We kill a lot of people," says Les owning up to the large number of procedurals on CBS. Brian asks, "Have you resigned yourself that there's a CBS kind of show?" Les responds, "No, I think it's actually unfair. We have a lot of procedurals but people say 'Gee, there's been a rebirth of comedy the last couple of years. By the way, there's a lot more of them but I think we've done pretty well in comedy on Monday. It's been a pretty strong lineup. We put 'Survivor' on which was a pretty different kind of show. 'The Good Wife,' I don't call a procedural show, I call it a character based drama... I think we like to put on what we consider the best shows. Is this a form we run away from? No. The critics like to say 'It's another procedural from CBS' but I'll take those numbers any day of the week."
1:53 PM - "Watching online needs to be made to count," Les says of the number of people who don't watch on their televisions. "That's the idea for the future and that's what I hope happens."
1:55 PM - In looking ahead to the next 12-18 months, what would Les say the industry should keep an eye on? "The biggest challenge is we hope Netflix stays strong and alive. The biggest conflict, the thing that faces all these companies is continue to [find] great talent and be smart about how to sell it in all different platforms...the key, and I go back to it over and over again, put on the good programming, they come and you will make a fortune." Les adds "I think the broadcast model is better now than it was five years ago...I think it's going to continue for a long time. I don't see in my lifetime being able to do away with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW. I don't see that ever happening."
1:58 PM - Asked if we'll see Les again on this stage in 2016? The answer from Les is no. "This is my farewell appearance at the HRTS."