Q&A with CBS Corporation’s Leslie Moonves


NEW YORK: Leslie Moonves, the president and CEO of CBS Corporation, tells World Screen that he has always been focused on one goal—making shows people want to watch—and that seemingly simple objective continues to pay off.

WS: CBS is doing well financially. Are you looking to make any acquisitions in the U.S. or internationally?
MOONVES: There is a lot of conversation about M&A [mergers and acquisitions] and what is available. Yes, we are indeed doing very well financially, but part of that is because we have a great deal of discipline. I would venture to say we look at a lot of things, but we are reluctant to stick our neck out. Right now we feel confident that the assets we have are performing extremely well—the network, the production group, Showtime, etc.—so we are reluctant to change the mix unless we see great opportunity out there and, at the moment, there is nothing that we are dying to have.

WS: Are there any companies that would fit into your portfolio?
MOONVES: We just spun out our CBS Outdoor [billboard advertising] business and consider ourselves a content-and-distribution business primarily. Any acquisition would be opportunistic; there is nothing we are looking for to fill our portfolio. Obviously we like producing content for CBS, The CW, Showtime and our syndication group. We would like to continue expanding that if possible, but most of the expansion comes internally, as opposed to from acquiring companies.

WS: There has been a lot of consolidation in the business lately. Given 21st Century Fox’s recent bid for Time Warner, would CBS be in a better position if it were still part of Viacom and a bigger company?
MOONVES: CBS and Viacom have both performed extremely well since we split apart. The truth of the matter is that we are entirely different businesses. Viacom is a big motion-picture company and a big cable company, and CBS has a different group of assets. The stocks of both companies have performed very well over the last number of years, so there doesn’t appear to be any real need, and I don’t think it would give us any more power to be back together. I think everybody is very content to be apart.

WS: What are your goals for CBS Television Studios?
MOONVES: CBS Television Studios produces for a lot of different ventures, but obviously the CBS network is number one. So my goal is for them to continue to produce premium content, make the best shows they possibly can and maximize their revenue. They’ve done a terrific job of expanding the NCIS and CSI franchises, as well as producing what I consider to be possibly the best show on television, The Good Wife. What also impresses me about CBS Studios is the diversity of the product that they make, going all the way from syndication shows to top-notch cable programming.

WS: Is there a need at this point for CBS to produce more films?
MOONVES: We have a small feature-film company (CBS Films) that does a few movies a year. I don’t think there is any need for us to expand beyond that. We are not looking to be a competitor for the $100-million-plus movies, the Transformers or Batman or Superman movies, as good as they may be. We’re going to remain a rather small movie company. We enjoy producing content, but we don’t want to get into that rat race.

WS: Besides, look at how much feature-film talent has been coming to television.
MOONVES: That’s exactly right. I think the quality of television is at an all-time high—some would argue that the quality of television is where the real power is now, even more than in feature films.

WS: With the proposed Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger, there will be consolidation in cable distribution. In that environment, will it be more difficult for broadcast or cable networks to get fair value for their content?
MOONVES: I don’t think so. If you look at our battle with Time Warner Cable, which is now a year old, we eventually got paid appropriately for our content. I don’t think the fact that these companies are getting bigger is going to change that. As long as we do the job that we are doing, which is produce premium content and acquire the appropriate sports rights, we will be fine and we will get paid fairly. We’ve made big deals with all these companies in the past and I’m sure that will continue.

WS: I have a home in Connecticut. Last August, I was so upset I didn’t have CBS in Manhattan on Time Warner Cable that I moved to Connecticut!
MOONVES: I’m glad to hear that! And clearly Time Warner Cable was hurt more than CBS. Some would say it put them in a vulnerable spot to the point that they had to sell the company.

WS: Give us an idea of the choices that went into making this year’s CBS fall schedule, placing some of the dramas where you placed them and carving out a slot for NFL football on Thursday nights.
MOONVES: It started there. Once we had the opportunity to grab Thursday night football, that changed the whole equation. Thursday night was already a strong night for us, where we won in every demographic. The fact that we were able to add football in the beginning of the season gave us the opportunity to move The Big Bang Theory to Monday night. In addition, because the spin-off NCIS: New Orleans follows NCIS on Tuesday nights, we were able to move another strong performer, NCIS: Los Angeles, to Monday to strengthen that night. The new shows we have on the schedule, from Stalker to Scorpion to Madam Secretary to NCIS: New Orleans, are all placed in time periods where they have great lead-ins. Obviously not every new show will work. But, as we like to say, every show is in a position where it can succeed. And hopefully we will continue to build on our past track record of success.

WS: Looking at the fall schedule, the vast majority of the shows are produced by CBS Television Studios. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen that they were pitching great shows this year?
MOONVES: Our strategy is similar to that of other networks. We buy from everybody and have a lot of shows on our schedule from Warner Bros. But revenues from the international marketplace and the SVOD marketplace [that we can generate from our own shows] have become more important in the equation of picking shows. We always say that when it’s a jump ball, when it’s 50-50 [between one of our shows and another studio’s show], we will choose our show. If an outside studio has a better show, we’ll pick that one. But clearly the strength of CBS Studios is important to us.

WS: There are people who are seeing an inevitable decline in the ratings of linear channels. Do you agree with that? And if that’s the case, how can you avoid that erosion?
MOONVES: The number of people who are watching on linear channels is still close to 75 percent of the total viewership. They are still watching shows at the time they are on. But as the world changes, we are prepared for the shifting schedule. Nielsen is becoming more sophisticated in counting time-shifted viewers and audiences on all platforms. We are fully prepared so that as more people watch a show three days or seven days after it airs, or on CBS.com, they will be counted, and that’s fine with us. As I said, the back end becomes as important as, if not more important than, the front end. And as viewers are changing their habits, it is still about having the best content and that’s all we care about. How they watch it, when they watch it, as long as it’s counted, it’s fine with us.

WS: Are you and your advertisers satisfied with the improvements being made in audience measurement?
MOONVES: There is no question that Nielsen has gotten a lot more sophisticated and a lot more accurate. I think they are working very hard to count as many different venues as they can, and that’s good for us. We’re working hand in hand with Nielsen to get to the right place, and once again, our economic models are working across the board, and we are doing quite well financially.

WS: Speaking of economic models, Extant and Under the Dome changed the way shows have traditionally been financed and sold.
MOONVES: It started a year ago with Under the Dome. Summer programming on the networks had been mainly relegated to reality shows, some of which have done very well, such as Big Brother and America’s Got Talent. But we found the model to break that pattern, whereby great international sales as well as deals with the Amazons and Netflixes of the world enabled us to put on premium quality drama in the summer and make it economically viable. After Under the Dome worked so well, we added Extant, and next year we are adding a new show called Zoo [based on a sci-fi thriller by James Patterson]. It hasn’t been CBS alone, but I think we led the way. We have added what we like to call a brand-new daypart, which is summer premium drama programming, and it now makes great financial sense to continue with that.

WS: The NCIS and CSI franchises have been expanded. How do you and your team decide when another show can be added to a franchise?
MOONVES: It’s really interesting. Both came about in different ways. NCIS is still the number one drama on television. It became self-evident that it would be a great idea to expand the franchise to another city while the original NCIS is doing phenomenally well. We have Gary Glasberg, who is the executive producer of NCIS, in charge of NCIS: New Orleans and it became a great opportunity. In the case of CSI: Cyber, it’s a very interesting story. It was an idea that was pitched to us about a particular character, and it really fit into the CSI franchise. It wasn’t our intent, per se, to look for another CSI. Instead, this idea came in and it fit perfectly for that franchise. Once again, both CSI and NCIS are selling extraordinarily well internationally and have a great deal of value, even after all these years. These are two different examples of how a franchise can expand, and we look forward to hopefully many more years of both of them.

WS: What kind of input does Armando Nuñez, the president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group, have when you are considering greenlighting a new series?
MOONVES: Armando has been the head of our international group for many years, and a few years ago he added domestic syndication, too. He is a very valuable part of the process. He is aware of what is in development. He looks at pilots and is consulted on everything we do, because the international and domestic marketplace both become big concerns when you are spending the kind of money you need to spend on premium drama and premium programming in general. Armando is an extremely important part of the team.

WS: Do you still prefer series with stand-alone episodes?
MOONVES: We prefer series with stand-alone episodes, and a lot of these stand-alones have some elements of a continuing story. We think it’s really important that they be stand-alones, and that has been our attitude for many years; it has served us very well. It not only helps us at the network with our ratings, but it certainly is a better model for international distribution and domestic syndication so viewers aren’t afraid that if they skip an episode [they miss crucial story lines]. Some of our shows, like The Good Wife, have a bit more serialization, but we really want to make it clear that you can tune in to a CBS show at any time and not be lost.

WS: That must help Armando, because international broadcasters can schedule shows with stand-alone episodes more easily than serialized shows.
MOONVES: That’s right, and when you compare the syndication value of the non-serialized to serialized shows, the difference is fairly huge.

WS: Do you agree that, as some people say, we are in a golden age of television for scripted drama?
MOONVES: Absolutely. Drama has never been better. There are many more channels programming drama. You have the premium-cable services—Showtime, HBO and Starz—and then basic-cable networks like FX doing terrific programming; the list goes on and on. In addition, each of the broadcast networks also has a number of dramas that they can point to where the quality is terrific. You can talk about The Good Wife on CBS, or The Blacklist on NBC, or Scandal on ABC. Every network has them.

WS: Has the drama genre evolved significantly over the years?
MOONVES: Not really. The key is still the quality of the shows. Cable has become a different animal than it used to be in that they are doing a lot more original drama. There are considerably more networks doing drama, but that makes for good competition, and I think the quality is extraordinary.

WS: How do you determine which dramas are a fit for CBS and which are more appropriate for Showtime?
MOONVES: On Showtime we can get away with a lot more [adult] language, violence and sexual content than we could on CBS. When you are a non-advertising-based premium channel, the standards are very, very different. In addition, Show­time thrives on serialized dramas, like Homeland, Ray Donovan, Masters of Sex and Shameless. These are four shows of great quality, and all deal with more adult-themed drama, violence, language and sex. It becomes fairly self-evident what belongs where; Show­time and CBS are very different organizations. I’m very proud that we have the Showtime shows, the CBS shows, The CW shows and the syndication shows, and that they are all for different audiences and all very good within their respective businesses.