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CBS' Moonves: Political rancor boosts broadcast TV business

November 17, 2011 |  5:34 pm

Leslie Moonves

CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, a seasoned media politician, has long insisted that the broadcast TV business was far from dead. When others -- including Wall Street and some rivals -- were ready to stick a fork in it, Moonves would vigorously promote the vitality of the 60-year-old business.

Turns out Moonves was right.

The company's broadcast network's ratings are up this season compared with a year ago, and ad dollars are pouring in. Next year there may be even more reasons for Moonves to strut. CBS, with its huge portfolio of TV and radio stations, could rake in as much as $250 million of the estimated $2.4 billion that is expected to be generated by political campaigns across the country. 

"We can't wait for 2012. It's going to be a banner year for us," Moonves said Thursday during a question-and-answer session at a Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. 

Moderator Brian Lowry, television critic and columnist for Variety, asked Moonves whether he had any qualms about how the political polarization of the nation -- and the expected flurry of divisive political commercials -- was helping the company's bottom line. 

Moonves was unapologetic. 

"Our system is our system," he said. "And sometimes the amount of tension coming out of Washington is a very good thing for our business."

In addition to the bounty of political dollars, CBS also is making millions of dollars more than in the past by licensing its programs to online services like Netflix. CBS and other TV broadcasters have carved out a lucrative revenue stream by charging cable and satellite operators for the right to carry their broadcast signals.

"The broadcast television model is better than it was five years ago," Moonves said. "I've heard this ever since I went into this business, that the broadcast business is dying. In every instance technology has been a friend of the content business." The great news, he added, is that "our business is about producing great content and selling it all over the place." 

One thing that could rain on Moonves' parade is the escalation of TV sports fees.  Soon CBS will have to negotiate a new rights package with the NFL. CBS can ill afford to pay the rates that ESPN has agreed to pay -- about $1.7 billion a year for pro football.

"The rights are getting a little out of proportion," Moonves said, without commenting directly on his outlook for the next round of NFL negotiations.

Next year, CBS will attempt another revamp of its long-languishing morning news franchise, "The Early Show." This week the network announced the introduction in January of Charlie Rose and Gayle King to help bring a more sober and hard-news bent to a program that has been accused of being frivolous and fluffy.

"To do a poor immitation of 'Good Morning America' or 'Today' is not the way to go," Moonves said, adding that he does not expect CBS News to be a major profit center. Instead, he said, it was an important part of being a broadcast network, adding: "The quality and the product is very important to me."

Moonves did not take the bait when Lowry asked whether he missed his longtime nemesis Jeff Zucker, who more than once when he was running NBC declared the broadcast TV business model dead.

"He is still hanging out there, somewhere, with Katie [Couric]," Moonves said. "I'm not going to comment on that, but I miss Warren [Littlefield] more," he said, referring to one of the architects of NBC's prime-time glory years during the 1990s.

Moonves also doesn't seem to miss Charlie Sheen on CBS' top-rated comedy "Two and a Half Men." After the actor's high-profile meltdown earlier this year, Warner Bros. Television, which produces the show, hired Ashton Kutcher to replace Sheen. The show's ratings are higher than last year, Moonves said.

"It was unfortunate," Moonves said of the Sheen drama. "I'm glad that is a chapter that is closed. It's not good when lawyers get involved in a television show. Kill all the lawyers, including my brother, who's in the room." Moonves' younger brother, Jon Moonves, is a prominent entertainment lawyer.

-- Meg James

Photo: CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves talking with Variety's Brian Lowry on Thursday at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon.  Credit: Chyna Photography / HRTS

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