On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 14, Leslie Moonves, the swaggering chairman and chief executive of CBS, will strut out onto the stage at Carnegie Hall, dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, to oversee the network’s presentation of its upcoming fall schedule to more than 2,800 assorted advertisers, media buyers, agents, executives, Hollywood suck-ups and skinny-limbed actors.
If you’re there, look for something: Before Mr. Moonves begins, before he cracks the self-deprecating jokes penned with the help of people like Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, before he unveils the new Survivor and unmasks the new hits- CSI: Hoboken ?-he’ll pause on the Carnegie stage for a second or two, take in that rocking aprés -two-cocktail-lunch applause, puff out that executive chest of his and noticeably, if briefly, bask.
And yes, it’s kind of a silly, self-congratulatory El Presidente basking moment, the kind that a gregarious tough-guy executive like Mr. Moonves, 53, is sometimes ridiculed for.
But it’s also a hoot. This is show business, and Mr. Moonves, more than anyone else these days, is a show businessman.
He’s earned the right to bask. The hard-nosed, indefatigable ex-actor, ex–studio chief (Warner Brothers television) has done a Lazarus act upon CBS, resuscitating it from cobwebbed irrelevance and reasserting its dominance through a combination of classically mainstream hits ( Everybody Loves Raymond ) and not-your-papa’s-CBS sensations like Survivor and CSI . CBS expects to finish the year with the most total viewers in broadcast television, and only slightly behind NBC in the 18-to-49 year-old demographic, the demo that advertisers covet, for a number of pseudo-scientific reasons they themselves have trouble explaining.
Along the way, Mr. Moonves has also revived the faded concept of the single-headed entertainment empire. CBS is not a one-man show, but in a hyper-bureaucratic era it is an anti-bureaucracy; all roads lead to Les. He’s involved in entertainment, news, sports; he even signs off on the casting selections for each program (actors never die; they just become casting agents). For better and for worse, he’s become indistinguishable from his network, and his network has become indistinguishable from him.
“It sort of harkens back to the studio system that the town enjoyed years and years ago on a creative basis,” said Mr. Moonves’ longtime friend, the producer Brad Grey. “And the results have been self-evident.”
Naturally, Mr. Moonves’ high profile and tough-guy tactics have also made him an awfully big target. He been razzed by David Letterman on CBS’s own air, though that’s died down in the past couple of years. Lately Howard Stern, who’s upset that CBS recently entered into an agreement with a producer he believes stole one of his ideas, has been savaging Mr. Moonves about his personal life on the air. (Mr. Moonves’ wife, Nancy, recently filed for divorce.) It’s fair to say that none of Mr. Moonves’ colleagues at NBC, ABC or Fox endure the same kind of abuse.
Of course, the attacks are also a perverse kind of testament to where he’s gotten. No one in TV is exactly like Les Moonves.
And that is why today, he basks.
“I thought I’d be here earlier, to tell you the truth,” Mr. Moonves said. It was late in the afternoon of May 8, and he was sitting in his spacious 19th floor office at CBS’s fabled 52nd Street headquarters, known as Black Rock. Basking day was still almost a week away. Mr. Moonves wore a navy suit and a canary yellow tie, and his hair and teeth looked, as usual, great.
He was responding to a question of whether CBS was where he thought it would be at this point, eight years into his run.
“To really build a schedule that is going to last, it took longer than I thought,” he said. “A quick fix doesn’t help you. You can’t just get a hit and throw on 20 other shows like it. It’s about one block at a time.”
This was true and it wasn’t. It was true in that CBS was in such decrepit shape when Mr. Moonves arrived in 1995 that the Bill Cosby-Milton Berle-Jerry Seinfeld-Chris Rock Half-Hour Comedy Hour probably couldn’t have resuscitated it by itself. The CBS that Mr. Moonves inherited was the Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman CBS, as old and undesirable as the butterscotch candies on grandmother’s coffee table.
“CBS held on to that Tiffany mantra a little bit too long,” Mr. Moonves said. “When I got here, it was in shambles.”
But Mr. Moonves thought CBS had always played it too conservatively. He was willing to be lucky, too. He did raise shows from seed, the old-fashioned way, like he did with Everybody Loves Raymond , nurturing it in a Friday night time slot before gently shifting it to Mondays, where it blossomed. But he’d also been eager to take big-bopper home-run swings, like he did with that show with the naked guy and the island.
He couldn’t take full credit for that-he first dismissed Survivor as the dumbest idea he’d ever heard, “a cable show”-but when the program became a phenomenon and a franchise, he did what was probably the craziest thing he could possibly do with it, which was to move it to Thursdays, against NBC’s Friends . People can say now that it wasn’t such a crazy idea, but it was. He put Survivor and another new CBS hit, CSI, there, and prayed they would work. They worked. CSI is now the No. 1 show on TV, in fact.
“That changed the face of the network,” Mr. Moonves said. “We could have been destroyed.”
One show had helped turn it around. Now, the network looked more like he wanted it to. It was still a tad geezerish-CBS is still the oldest-skewing network, a fact which Mr. Moonves said was “held against us by the advertising community.” But with Survivor and CSI and Raymond and the King of Queens and the gang at 60 Minutes , it looked like-of all things-the last broadcasting network. NBC had long gone hip and urbane, Fox was for the smart-asses and kids, and ABC was … well, ask us later. But Mr. Moonves, as Hollywood insider as you could get, had crafted a network with something for everyone, even you- even if nobody you knew ever, ever, watched Becker .
“We’re the only ones that talk about viewers,” he said.
He talked about “viewers” not only because NBC still had the 18-to-49-year-old edge, but also because the showman in Mr. Moonves liked the idea of it: He enjoyed the big-tent hit, the show everyone watched. Especially if it was a classy show. Network executives are great pretenders, but Mr. Moonves didn’t begin to pretend he was as proud of, say, Big Brother as he was of 9/11 , the network’s award-winning documentary about the World Trade Center attack.
“There are victories, and there are hollow victories,” he said. “You all want to be proud of your work. It’s not to say I’m not proud of everything on our network-I’m prouder of certain things. But the reason you got into this business is to get a Peabody Award for the 9/11 special. There is a spiritual, social thing. There is a responsibility I take very seriously.”
It didn’t always work out the way he liked, of course. Mr. Moonves had been beaten up a bit over his decision to air a miniseries about Hitler’s early years, premiering May 18.
“I took that very seriously,” he said. “I thought a lot about the criticism that was coming our way-which bothered us only because it was based on a script we threw away. But I thought: Is doing this program at all going to provoke anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism? We gave it a lot of thought. The people out there who think network heads and programmers are a bunch of heathens are wrong. I really do care what goes on the screen.
“The criticism stung,” he continued. “It bothered me because there was a whole wave of it from leading Jewish leaders. From top guys. So we did take pause: ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ And I said: ‘Yes, it is. It’s our obligation, and it’s important that we tell this story-but it’s important that we get it right.’ That was my main concern. I was nervous about getting it right.”
He felt he’d made the right decision. He said he was proud of the Hitler project.
And then … .what about the Beverly Hillbillies ? He’d been roasted about that, too-CBS had been mulling a reality series with real-life backwoods people moving to real-life Beverly Hills. It outraged Georgia Senator Zell Miller, who found time to blast Mr. Moonves on the floor of the United States Senate.
“We have not decided what to do,” Mr. Moonves said. “It has certainly received a lot more attention than I ever thought it would-resolutions on the floor of the U.S. Senate days before we bombed Iraq, which I found to be the most astonishing thing, that a Senator took 15 minutes on the floor of the United States Senate to put me down for a show that we haven’t even ordered. We’re still looking at it, we’re still exploring it-we haven’t made any decisions.”
It was television ! There was always going to be something. He’d been on decent terms with Mr. Letterman for a while, so that was a nice plus, since it’d been ugly not too long ago. “I still think we got the best guy,” Mr. Moonves said of Dave. “When I go home at night and I want to watch a show, that monologue is the best thing on television.” He even had nice words for Craiggers, Craig Kilborn, who’s been dealing with a new challenge from ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel. “Craig is doing fine,” he said.
And if you want to talk about potential hornets’ nests, since 1998 Mr. Moonves has also overseen the CBS News division. From the get-go, there was worry about what the entertainment executive might do. Down on West 57th, the legends in suspenders were skittish. Mr. Moonves said he was skittish, too.
“When I’m first dealing with the Don Hewitts of the world and the Dan Rathers and the Mike Wallaces, I was a little bit intimidated,” Mr. Moonves said. “These were legends. I have been a news junkie my whole life-my family, I grew up with that-and I was suddenly their boss. So I treaded softly.”
Mr. Moonves said he was proud of the work CBS News had done throughout the Iraq war, and before that, 9-11. He called the coverage “phenomenal.” There’d been some back-and-forth during the war about when to break regular programming to carry news coverage-in the mother of all conflicts, CBS was scheduled to open the NCAA basketball tournament hours after the war broke out-but he felt each decision had been handled appropriately. “There are economic questions every time we do that,” he said of breaking news interruptions. “Even if it’s 11 in the morning and we’ve got to yank The Young and the Restless -we lose x amount of dollars on that. We are trying to be good corporate citizens, and we’ve got to be good public citizens. It’s always tough calls.”
He said he got it: He knew why breaking coverage was important, not just to the integrity and tradition of the company, but to the principle of broadcasting. He’d always be the outsider, but he felt he understood the news beast, and earned some respect back.
Andrew Heyward, the CBS News president, agreed. “He said, ‘As long as you keep me informed, we’ll be fine-I’m going to let you run your division,” Mr. Heyward recalled. “He has totally lived up to that.”
There would be more tough calls, obviously. Mr. Moonves isn’t exactly freaking out about TiVo-yet-but he said that if more people begin using services that allow them to zap out commercials, his network would have no choice but to find ways of integrating the advertisers’ products into programming.
“That is the future,” Mr. Moonves said. “There’s going to be much more product placement. We did it with Survivor, obviously. They’re doing it with American Idol . I saw Minority Report , Steven Spielberg’s movie-that had more product placement than any TV show I’ve ever seen. So my phrase is, ‘If it’s good enough for Spielberg, it’s good enough for us.’ So you’re going to see more and more of that- you’re going to see cars incorporated into shows, and instead of Ray Romano, sitting there with a can of nondescript soda, he’ll be drinking a Diet Pepsi. That’s going to happen.”
Mr. Romano, of course, was about to sign a new contract ensuring him $43 million dollars to continue having Everybody Love him – tough life! – so he’d probably happily suck down the Diet Pepsi. But that was probably as much as Mr. Moonves would ask of him. Mr. Romano’s pal Phil Rosenthal – not doing too bad these days himself, either – said that Mr. Moonves calls him each time Everybody Loves Raymond celebrates anniversaries, and reminds him he didn’t screw with his show, like television executives are wont to do.
“He’ll say, ‘Didn’t get a note from me, did ya? Didn’t get one note from us, did ya? Once it got going – no notes!'” Mr. Rosenthal said. “He’s proud of that. And you got to love that if you’re in my position. They didn’t mess with it.”
Which is not to say that Mr. Moonves is a hands-off guy. Not every show is as promising as Everybody Loves Raymond , and the CBS chief will get involved if he feels he needs to, in everything from casting to plotlines to contracts. Especially in negotiations, he can be terminally relentless and aggressive, and even his friends acknowledge he’s a grizzly in a fight. “He’s just passionate about what he does,” said his friend Jim Wiatt, the head of the William Morris Agency. “If he doesn’t get something he wants, he’s pissed. He does not like to lose.”
But it’s his game to lose. More than anyone else in the TV business, Mr. Moonves gets to run the show. This afternoon he’ll walk out at Carnegie Hall and introduce a number of new shows. There’s a sitcom ( Two and a Half Men ) with Charlie Sheen, a drama ( The Handler ) with Joey Pants from The Sopranos , another Jerry Bruckheimer thriller ( Cold Case ), and something from David E. Kelley ( The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. ), a friend of Mr. Moonves’ who may or may not be entering his Willie Mays-on-the-Mets stage.
A few of these shows will likely be flops. But maybe there’s a hit in there. Maybe even two. Whatever happens, Leslie Moonves intends to keep broadcasting, doing it the only way he knows, front center, larger than life and … basking. It’s what he does.
“Opportunity for me has been less out of design than ‘Shit happens,'” Mr. Moonves said. “Stuff comes at me and I weave through it. At the moment, I really am content with what I am doing. It’s exciting, it’s fun. Especially this time of the year.”