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CBS' Leslie Moonves spreads the good cheer at investor conference

December 8, 2009 | 10:36 am

CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves is one happy man.

"Life is so much better for us than it was a year ago," he said this morning at the UBS media conference in New York. "Last year, the advertising market was on the ropes, stations were getting socked and CBS stock seemed to be in a free fall. But CBS' stock is back up and most of its core businesses are humming."

MOONVES Moonves was characteristically upbeat and confident (The Wall Street Journal once noted that Moonves sees the glass as half full even when it's lying on its side). He reminded investors that despite what you might have heard from some other top TV executives (i.e., NBC Universal Chief Jeff Zucker, who presides over cellar dweller NBC and spoke at the conference on Tuesday), broadcast television is not a dinosaur.

“I’m tired of reading how network television is down,” Moonves said. “Network television still is pretty darn strong.” When asked to divulge some secrets to CBS’ success, Moonves responded matter-of-factly: “Produce new hits year after year. Don’t take four or five years off from doing hit shows.” 

Rim-shot! Moonves said there would be new shows that turn out to be duds. But the key is to continue to support the foundation of the prime-time schedule. “You always need to replace some bricks, but when you need to replace the whole house, that’s when you are in trouble.”

Perhaps that’s why General Electric Co. Chairman Jeffrey Immelt last week agreed to unload NBC Universal on Comcast Corp. Moonves had some thoughts on Comcast CEO Brian Roberts’ plans to swallow NBC Universal to create what would become latest media behemoth.

“The Comcast news is pretty exciting,” Moonves said. “This is the first major deal since AOL-Time Warner, and I’m sure Brian hopes this one comes out a little better.”

Moonves said he was happy that other television executives, including News Corp. President Chase Carey (who also spoke at UBS on Tuesday), “were on the field” lobbying for cable companies to pay broadcasters for the right to carry their signals. He was encouraged that even Comcast -- the nation’s largest cable operator, which ordinarily would be loath to increase its payments to programmers -- seems to support the trend toward “retransmission fees.” Moonves said that CBS should collect about $250 million in such payments in 2012.

“I’m sure that Brian Roberts will be paying himself for NBC,” he said. (But hopefully not kicking himself.)

Moonves said that the advertising market is rebounding and that CBS should take in about $100 million more in the fourth quarter than it did in the year-ago period. The network, he said, has been pulling some of its own promotions out of prime-time and late-night shows to make way for paying customers. The Super Bowl is also 90% sold out and commercial spots are hitting the $3-million mark.

Said Moonves: “I hate to sound like a Pollyanna but things are pretty darn good.”

-- Meg James

Photo: CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images