CBS' Les Moonves on DVRs, Demographics and his Network's Wild New Fall Series

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Originally published on August 22, 2007

CBS CEO Explains How DVRs and the Internet are Making Broadcast Better

CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves isn't worried about the state of broadcast television. Not audience erosion, nor competition from the Internet, nor the impact of DVRs on commercial viewing. In fact, he remains one of broadcast's biggest champions, despite increased competition from other media.

"If you want to reach a big number of people you still have to go to network television," he said in a friendly chat during the recent Television Critics Association tour. "The Internet, frankly, will hurt us less than it will hurt cable. We feel that if people want to get our shows whenever they can get them, we should make them available. That's been our attitude. Spread it out as much as we can."

"The most interesting statistic that nobody is writing about is that your favorite show, be it CSI, American Idol or Desperate Housewives, is only watched two out of four times by the most loyal viewers all season," he explained. "Therefore DVRs and the Internet become more and more important not to get people to sample your show for the first time but to get those people to watch those other two times. So the loyal viewer of CSI will now watch four out of four times. They'll only watch it twice on Thursday nights at 9 o'clock, but the other two times they'll get it. I want to make that available anytime, anywhere, anyplace. I think we can do that."

Moonves was quick to note that broadcast is still "the best game in town" for advertisers. "CPMs have gone up because we're still more valuable than anybody else," he said. "There may be fewer viewers, but it's still the most intense place to get your product across."

Further, he added, reports about recent losses of broadcast viewers have been greatly exaggerated, depending on your point of view. "This past year we lost viewers," he admitted. "But if you were to count DVR penetration the amount that we lost would have been rather miniscule. Then, when you truly count the Internet, it would have been almost flat from a year ago. I don't necessarily buy that [advertisers] are buying [fewer] viewers. They're buying the same amount of viewers in different places.

"There's more DVR usage," Moonves continued. "But DVRs are getting counted, and you're seeing that they are not as disastrous to commercials as everybody thought. Nobody would have thought that only [about] 45 percent of people zap commercials. Not only that, but commercials you zap through are still effective to a certain extent. When you see that Crest toothpaste logo, that goes into your brain. More and more people are going to be viewing [commercials] with the logo throughout.

"By the way, if I'm lying in bed with my wife, she'll zap the commercials," Moonves laughed. "I won't. It would take me a minute to figure out how to do it. I'll just sit through it and watch it."

Despite his unwavering enthusiasm in the face of mounting competition, Moonves is bugged by continuing assertions in the press that CBS is a network for old people.

"We don't like the perception of CBS," he stated. "I think the perception is a misconception. We're in second place in 18-49! You guys still write about us like we have Murder, She Wrote on the air.

"I think our shows are underrated," he continued. "I think our network is underrated. We're written about like the old fogey network. More people watch CBS!

"By the way," he said to the newspaper reporters in the group, "your demos match our demos. So give us a break."

Speaking of demos, Moonves asserted, "The phrase '18-49 is the only demo that is valued by advertisers' is not true! That's the biggest misconception. Most of my competitors only send out 18-49 [ratings information]. CBS is No. 1 by two million people per night. That's a lot of people. Nobody writes that!"

Moonves noted that CBS is often "accused of being too traditional," but said he doesn't mind. "Two and a Half Men, for my money, is the best comedy on television right now," he declared. "It's the highest rated and it doesn't get written about nearly as much as some of the comedies on other networks on Thursday night. The ratings on Two and a Half Men are superior. The show is as good as any comedy on television. If you could see the amount of press Two and a Half Men gets compared to some of the other network comedies it would be one-tenth as much. It is being ignored. [The failed Fox comedy] Arrested Development probably got ten times the press that Two and a Half Men got!"

Does this mean Moonves thinks traditional comedies are better than single camera comedies? "I'm not saying that," he said. "I like those NBC comedies. I think they're great. But I like my ratings better!"

When I asked Moonves about the somewhat eccentric and eclectic new series CBS will premiere in the fall, he replied, "We did a number of pilots. We looked at them all. These were the best we had. As [CBS Entertainment president] Nina [Tassler] has said, if there had been a procedural that was great, we would have gone with it. The best made it on the air. We did some procedurals. We did some fastballs down the middle this year that just weren't as good. It wasn't the genre. It was what was good.

"Did we want to stretch? Yes. [But] we're not reinventing the wheel with Cane. The Big Bang Theory? Pretty traditional. Viva Laughlin, Kid Nation? We're going for it. We also have a very strong bench. We have Amazing Race on the bench. We have Swingtown, which we love, which is pretty daring. We have The New Adventures of Old Christine on the bench. So we're very strong, midseason wise. It's okay to take a couple of chances in time periods. You know, Wednesday at 8 o'clock we weren't knocking it out of the ballpark. I don't think it's a big stretch to say we can do better with Kid Nation. I don't think it's a big stretch to say we can do better with Moonlight on Friday than we did with Close to Home. Viva Laughlin is a bit of a risk, but that's okay.

"You should have seen the scheduling room," he laughed. "It was war! People were screaming at each other. It was great! Bring it on! I want passion! All you need is 16 percent who love the show in America and you're a hit. You don't need 40 percent anymore. You get 16 percent of the viewers who love your show and you're a big hit."

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