A candid conversation with Hollywood's top honcho about reviving a dead network, losing Howard Stern and the real story on Dan Rather. -- april 2005
"They keep telling us that morality is the number one issue in America, yet the number one shows in the nation--in blue and red states--are CSI, about murder, and Desperate Housewives, about adultery."
"I felt double-crossed by Janet Jackson. My opinion is that she knew what she was doing. I don't think this was an accident. That said, this is a conservative climate. People are living in fear. It's a dangerous precedent."
"The biggest name on cable, Bill O'Reilly, gets a million and a half viewers. The three network anchors together draw almost 30 million a night. Network news may be less important now, but a sizable number of people are watching."
In a reality show more dramatic--and with infinitely higher stakes--than anything that runs on his television networks, Leslie Moonves, Viacom co-president and CBS chairman, faces outrageous challenges on a regular basis. He does battle with the Federal Communications Commission when it fines his network $550,000 after Janet Jackson exposes her breast during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl. He fires one executive, asks for the resignation of three others and publicly apologizes to the American public at the conclusion of an investigation into the 60 Minutes II report in which his star anchorman, Dan Rather, raised damning questions about President Bush's service in the National Guard that were based on documents now believed to be forgeries. He takes on Howard Stern, who refers to him as a snake, and David Letterman, who includes in a top 10 list of complaints from Taliban prisoners at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, "Television only gets one channel, and it's CBS." He takes the heat first for commissioning and then for yanking a biopic about Ronald Reagan starring Barbra Streisand's husband, James Brolin, as the former president.
It's another day at the office for Moonves, the man who took CBS from last place when he arrived in 1995 to its current slot at number one. Now Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone has pitted Moonves against MTV's Tom Freston by naming them copresidents, making them two of the most powerful men in Hollywood. The winner of the "bake off," as the media have dubbed it, gets the top Viacom job when Redstone, who is 81 years old, steps down in 2007. Moonves was put in charge of CBS Entertainment, CBS News, CBS Sports, the company's TV stations, CBS syndication, Infinity radio, billboards, Paramount Television, King World syndication and the UPN network. His name is on everyone's short list whenever a potential executive vacancy is mentioned (he's currently rumored as a replacement for Michael Eisner at Disney). Meanwhile Freston is in charge of MTV Networks (which includes VH1 and Nickelodeon), Showtime, BET, Paramount Parks, Simon & Schuster and the motion picture operations of Paramount Pictures.
Moonves, who is from Long Island, worked as a stage actor, bartender, television actor and producer of plays and TV shows before joining Warner Bros. Television, where he emerged as a major force as a production executive after his company launched such hits as Friends and ER. He left for CBS at a time when the eye network was languishing in the ratings. It had lost its way, had few hit shows and catered to an older and (to advertisers) less desirable audience. Former NBC chairman Grant Tinker told Los Angeles magazine, "I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. He's facing much worse odds than anyone has ever had."
Moonves turned CBS around with hit shows including Everybody Loves Raymond, CSI and Survivor. Not only is CBS the number one network in ratings and profits, it has also captured a younger demographic, winning CBS the prized 18-to-49 viewing group.
Recently Moonves's personal life has resembled one of his daytime soaps. Last year he filed for divorce from his wife of 25 years, Nancy Moonves, with whom he has three children. In December he married CBS Early Show anchor Julie Chen.
PLAYBOY sent contributing editor David Sheff, who last interviewed Oliver Stone, to meet with Moonves. Sheff reports, "Moonves has a bicoastal life with bicoastal personalities and bicoastal wardrobes to go with it. When I met him at CBS in L.A., where he wore a sweater and casual slacks, he had been dealing with the creative side of his job, attending casting calls, shuffling his network's schedules and meeting with producers and actors. In New York, at Viacom, wearing an impeccably tailored suit, Moonves was preparing budgets and meeting with Wall Street. In both places one thing was obvious: Moonves loves his job, loves TV and thrives on the daily hailstorms, whether they come in the form of crackdowns by the FCC or negotiating with major stars like Stern and Letterman."
Playboy: Now that you're co-president of Viacom, how involved can you be in the scheduling of CBS shows?
Moonves: CBS is still my baby. I'm devoted to the network. I get up at 5:30 every morning to check the previous night's ratings. The good news is that we have a lot more good nights than we used to.
Playboy: Right now ABC, the last network anyone had deemed a threat, is giving you a run for your money. CSI is still the nation's number one show, but ABC's Desperate Housewives just beat out Survivor for number two.
Moonves: Everybody is surprised that ABC has come back so strongly. Desperate Housewives is a good show. And by the way, it isn't just a chick show. I know a lot of guys who watch the program--it has beautiful, sexy women. But we have the number one comedy in Raymond, the number one drama in CSI, the number one newsmagazine in 60 Minutes and the number one reality show in Survivor. We are doing spectacularly well. For the first time since 1980 we are winning 18- to 49-year-olds. We are no longer the old-fogy network.
Playboy: Rather than being the hip network, CBS used to be the hip-replacement network. What brought in younger viewers?
Moonves: Survivor helped a lot. It was the first time my daughter, who is now 20 but at the time was 16 and in high school, came home and said, "Dad, my friends are actually watching a show on CBS." Then CSI exploded. CBS became hip.
Playboy: Survivor changed television. If you go down in history as the father, or as a father, of reality television, will you be proud or embarrassed?
Moonves: I wouldn't be proud of many reality shows, but I'm very proud of Survivor. There is a reason we are on Survivor 11, Amazing Race six or seven and Big Brother six. These are good shows, and the cream rises to the top.
Playboy: You've made dramatic improvements in the entertainment division, but CBS News is deeply troubled. The independent panel you charged with investigating Dan Rather's 60 Minutes II piece about President Bush's National Guard service released a damning report. Were you surprised?
Moonves: Not entirely, though some of the revelations were more shocking than I thought they would be. I was surprised by the level of bad journalism.
Playboy: What shocked you?
Moonves: That no one authenticated the documents and yet we went with the story. That we didn't thoroughly investigate the source of the documents. Finally, when the report was in question, that the person who did the report in the first place was the one who did the follow-up. Each of those was surprising and completely unacceptable.
Playboy: The panel accused CBS News of having "myopic zeal."
Moonves: It's a sobering revelation for us and, I think, for a lot of news organizations. Getting the scoop and being first can't be our first priorities. It's competitive out there, but I would rather be last and accurate.
Playboy: The report also revealed that the producer of the segment, Mary Mapes, called Joe Lockhart, a senior official in the John Kerry campaign, prior to airing the piece. The panel called Mapes's action a "clear conflict of interest that created the appearance of political bias."
Moonves: It breaks every journalistic rule in the book. But I was also pleased that the panel concluded there was no political bias at CBS News. Political bias was not behind the report.
Playboy: Yet you are on record as a supporter of Democrats, particularly Bill Clinton. Is it any wonder that some Republicans suspect you?
Moonves: I can't and would never try to influence our coverage. Our news department operates with the highest standards. There's no place for partisan politics here. By the way, the minute the news department started reporting to me, I removed myself from all political activity. I have not given a nickel nor have I attended any function for any political party since then.
Playboy: Four news department staff members were singled out in the panel's report, but were they the fall guys? What about Andrew Heyward, the head of CBS News? What about Rather himself?
Moonves: The report shows that before the segment was broadcast Andrew Heyward gave explicit instructions to check every word of it. Afterward he issued direct instructions to investigate the sourcing of the story and the authentication of the documents. His instructions weren't carried out, which is a problem we are addressing.
Playboy: And Rather?
Moonves: He had already announced his resignation in advance of the report. We felt he had taken the appropriate steps.
Playboy: Were you involved in Rather's decision to resign?
Moonves: He decided. No matter what people have said, that decision was made much earlier. We literally began discussing a succession plan with Dan the previous summer. We decided to get through the election, at which point we would announce a game plan. Dan was going to cover the inauguration and step down soon after, whether in February, March, April or May--sometime in that framework.
Playboy: Was he asked to resign early because of the scandal?
Moonves: It was his decision. He chose his 24th anniversary.
Playboy: Didn't he want to make it to his 25th?
Moonves: Maybe, but he made the choice. It was important that he do this ahead of the report. Yes, he may have announced his retirement a month earlier than he would otherwise have in order to distance the announcement from the report. There's no question about that, but he had already planned to retire.
Playboy: He announced his resignation from his anchor spot at CBS Evening News but not from 60 Minutes. Will you ask him to resign from that position, too?
Moonves: No. He will stay on with CBS News and 60 Minutes. Nothing in the report changes that decision. We feel that's appropriate.
Playboy: How will CBS News attempt to recover from this incident?
Moonves: There will be a top-to-bottom reorganization. We have major challenges ahead. A lot of people at CBS News have been here for hundreds of years. The world has changed, and they haven't kept up. We'll follow the recommendations in the report as a start. In addition we are working on a bold new plan going forward. Also, I can't totally keep my hands off.
Playboy: Does that mean you'll be more involved with the news division, checking stories before they run?
Moonves: At the moment I am not involved editorially in any way. There is a real separation of church and state, which I respect. Now, however, we have to reexamine it. What occurred was clearly detrimental to the entire network.
Playboy: You announced that an ombudsman will oversee controversial news stories. But journalists balk when nonjournalists--executives like you--interfere. It can compromise their work.
Moonves: An ombudsman would not interfere, just put up cautionary flags. There must be some oversight. We need a system that protects the company while assuring the independence of the news department.
Playboy: At what point did you realize Rather's report about President Bush had problems?
Moonves: The day after the story ran there were rumors on Internet blogs, but I was assured that the documents had been verified. As the days wore on, however, I began to do my own investigating. I hadn't gone very deep before I realized there was a problem. From that point I was disappointed that this story ran without the questions being sufficiently answered. By the time Dan apologized publicly, we had decided to set up the panel to investigate what happened.
Playboy: Were you involved in conversations that led to his apology?
Moonves: Yes, though I never dealt directly with the principals. I worked through Andrew Heyward.
Playboy: With the retirement of Rather, Tom Brokaw and Bill Moyers, is this the end of an era?
Moonves: I think it is. These guys were like the voice of God, bigger than life. Now network news is changing. It's still important. The three network anchors together draw almost 30 million people a night. The biggest name on cable, Bill O'Reilly, gets a million and a half. Network news may be less important than it was when Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley were sitting behind the desk, but a sizable number of people are watching. Having said that, not to evolve into the next generation would be silly. Right now we have an opportunity to evolve. When Cronkite was on television, there was no Internet. People are now getting an awful lot of information online. There is cable news. Everything is faster paced, and news comes via satellite and phone. To ignore the changes would be stupid.
Playboy: Before the election, Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns CBS affiliates in some markets, was in the middle of a controversy because it planned to show an anti-Kerry documentary. Did you weigh in on it?
Moonves: I thought it was inappropriate. They were clearly taking a strong political point of view on the public airwaves. We are licensed by the federal government. I didn't approve of that. Sinclair has three CBS-affiliated stations, but there is nothing we can do. Affiliates are allowed to take our programs off the air and put on whatever they want. A lot of advertisers bailed out. They didn't think it was the appropriate forum. I found it interesting that there seemed to be more outcry over the airing of Saving Private Ryan than over the Swift boat movie. That surprised me.
Playboy: You were accused of playing politics when you commissioned a TV movie about Ronald Reagan, even though you ultimately pulled it from CBS.
Moonves: It wasn't politics. Reagan is obviously a significant figure. At the time, I said, "Make sure this is a balanced portrayal." I knew we would show him warts and all, but I wanted to be certain it was fair. Those were my instructions. I read the script, but scripts change and directors interpret scripts in different ways.
Playboy: When did you decide to pull it?
Moonves: When I finally saw the movie I thought it was unbelievably biased against Reagan. It had an agenda. I felt the movie would have upset too many people. I asked for some changes, and most of them were made. When I watched it again I realized I was trying to change a zebra into a horse. I decided we couldn't show it, which is when the brouhaha started.
Playboy: Judy Davis, who plays Nancy Reagan, called your decision "an attack on free speech."
Moonves: She has a right to her opinion, but I disagree. If this were a cable network, it would probably have been fine to air it. It ran on Showtime, which was appropriate. If it were a feature film by a director like Oliver Stone, it would have been fine. People can decide if they want to go to a theater to see a feature.
Playboy: But people could have chosen to watch your Reagan movie or not.
Moonves: A broadcast network is different. We have the public trust. We are on public airwaves. Our average audience each night is 14 million people. Political bias has to be put aside. Displaying that is not our role.
Playboy: Does the political climate influence the way you program the entertainment shows?
Moonves: No. The two highest-rated shows on television are CSI and Desperate Housewives. CSI is watched by almost 30 million people every week. Those shows are watched by people in red states and blue states.
Playboy: Some pundits have said the election results were in part a reaction against liberal Hollywood.
Moonves: I know many people think that those in the media and maybe especially in Hollywood are out of the mainstream, but it isn't true. The people producing shows watched by 30 million viewers each week are not out of touch. The Incredibles was made by people in Hollywood. They aren't out of touch. Some would divide us into the Mel Gibson people and the Michael Moore people, but we talk to all of America.
Playboy: Arguably, your reality shows talk to a great cross section of Americans. Are the shows rigged?
Moonves: Never. They are games. Somebody wins a million dollars. You've got to play kosher, and we always do. We're strict about the rules.
Playboy: Yet viewers have long suspected that audience favorites--the sexiest girl, the most flamboyant character--are less likely to be axed.
Moonves: Sure, we're always looking and hoping that the more interesting players and the ones with better stories last, but we don't control it. We do our part by creating situations that lead to conflict and tension. We also make careful choices when we cast these shows. I have been involved in the casting of every Survivor.
Playboy: What are you looking for?
Moonves: Diversity in race, style and age. The contestants are generally in their 20s and 30s, but there is always a 50- or 60- year-old. Amazing Race always has couples over 60. I want the 55-year-old guy to have someone he can root for. Eye candy isn't bad either. We cast interesting personalities and pretty girls who have something to say. We look for people who bring something special, and we want to mix it up. We want drama.
Playboy: Which makes for better drama, people hitting it off sexually or catfights?
Moonves: Hopefully you get both.
Playboy: These shows don't necessarily bring out the best side of people.
Moonves: It's true that you sometimes see a darker side of people than you want to see, but that's part of life, and it's good television.
Playboy: Have reality shows run their course? Some critics have sounded their death knell.
Moonves: They are totally wrong. Amazing Race has more viewers now than it ever did. We're doing more Survivors--seasons 10 and 11--and the show dominates Thursday nights. On other networks The Apprentice and American Idol are doing great.
Playboy: Were you surprised by the success of Donald Trump's show?
Moonves: No. It's well-done, and Mark Burnett is a wonderful producer.
Playboy: Trump is now famous for firing people. Are you good at that?
Moonves: No, I hate it. By the way, anybody decent hates it.
Playboy: Trump called you the most overrated person in television.
Moonves: He did that after I put CSI against The Apprentice. He didn't like that. CSI beats it every single week. I say that with a lot of pride. Donald says his is the number one show in America, but that's not honest. It's not even the number one show in its time slot.
Playboy: Are you surprised that Survivor spawned an entire genre of television?
Moonves: Sure. Especially since I turned down the original pitch. I thought it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard.
Playboy: What changed your mind?
Moonves: I agreed to meet with Mark Burnett, whose idea it was, and he knocked my socks off. He's a great storyteller and very engaging. He had the show worked out to the last frame. A lot of my job is betting on people. I decided to go forward, but I was still leery. I never believed it would be such an enormous success. I'm not surprised that good shows find an audience, but no one can predict when a show will catch on and become number one and remain at number one. No one can predict a Friends or a CSI.
Playboy: Are you sometimes appalled by certain shows that take off?
Moonves: It happens all the time. No, I'm not going to say which. I've been involved with shows that were not particularly good but had a certain commercial appeal. But there aren't many of them. Critics aren't always right, either. Their job is to criticize, but by definition they don't speak for the public. We had a catastrophe movie recently that was soundly hated by reviewers but was the highest-rated new miniseries in five years.
Playboy: Did you disagree with the reviewers?
Moonves: No. It was cheesy. It was a disaster movie. It was sort of an old Irwin Allen movie. But people like those. It was popcorn. The reviewers took it a little too seriously. On Sunday night, people want to have fun.
Playboy: CSI was created by a Las Vegas tram driver. Why did it work?
Moonves: He wrote a spec feature-film script, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer liked it, so we did the pilot. I watched it in my Los Angeles office. I was eating a sandwich and almost got sick when a bullet tore into some guy's body, which since then has become a trademark of the show. Bruckheimer brought to television special effects like that and other production values normally associated with movies. He brought a new dimension to television. He has six shows on our air now--Amazing Race, three CSIs, Cold Case and Without a Trace. The original CSI wasn't a slam dunk, but then we tested it and it did surprisingly well and surprisingly well with women, which is essential for any hit show other than sports shows. We realized it wasn't seen as a cop show but as a murder mystery. It made its way onto the schedule and took off.
Playboy: Have you been in love with shows that never caught on no matter how hard you tried to make them into hits?
Moonves: It has happened but not often. No matter what people think, it's rare that something really good doesn't get noticed.
Playboy: With CSI and Survivor, you eventually beat shows you developed at Warner Bros.--ER and Friends. Was that particularly gratifying?
Moonves: Yes, especially since my babies, ER and Friends, had tormented me for years. They were monster hits, and nobody could compete with them. At CBS I would wake up every Friday morning and be devastated because their numbers were so high and ours were so low. It was like a dagger in my heart. With Survivor and CSI, we finally beat them. It was hugely significant, particularly since this was Thursday night, and Thursday night is the mecca for network television. To win Thursday night was huge.
Playboy: Why is Thursday so important?
Moonves: Winning Thursday night means a shift of hundreds of millions of dollars. It's the highest-priced night in television. More people watch, and it's the night the movie companies advertise for the weekend. As much as 40 percent of our revenue comes from Thursday night because of the movie companies. When Survivor and CSI took over Thursday night we were dancing in the streets.
Playboy: CBS got the NFL but not Monday Night Football.
Moonves: It's not something we want. We're happy with our Sunday package. Fortunately our prime-time schedule is working so well that we beat Monday Night Football with our regular lineup of CSI: Miami and Everybody Loves Raymond.
Playboy: It has been reported that CBS doesn't make money because you paid so much for the NFL deal.
Moonves: We make money when you add the owned-and-operated stations and the AFC package. Seven AFC teams are affiliated with CBS-owned stations. When you add the additional revenue from that, the deal is profit-making. On top of that, it means a lot to the network as a whole. There is no better way to reach young men. It's huge. You've also got the Super Bowl and the AFC championship game. There are many values other than dollars and cents.
Playboy: With successes like ER and Friends, why did you leave Warner Bros. to run the last-place network?
Moonves: Running a network is the top of the heap in television. CBS was obviously in deep trouble. I don't know if how to fix it was so obvious, but I thought I knew how. For my first 18 months here I thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life. It was so depressing after Warner Bros., which was exciting and vibrant. A loser mentality ran throughout CBS after the network had been in last place for years.
Playboy: How did you address the culture?
Moonves: There are many things in this business you have no control over, so you had better control the things you can. One of them is hard work. The first or second Friday afternoon I was at CBS, I walked around and the place was three quarters empty. I was furious. I wrote a memo to the staff, saying, "In case you haven't noticed, we are in last place. My guess is that at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon at NBC and ABC they are still working." The memo wound up on the front page of Variety. Things changed, particularly when I brought over my team from Warner. It's a clichÃ©, but having a good team is key. These are people I really care about and trust. It has been essential, especially as my responsibilities have increased.
Playboy: How has the impact of emerging technologies changed your business?
Moonves: Since I've been doing this job, obviously the penetration of cable has increased immensely. There's the Internet and DVDs. But I wouldn't say I'm programming any differently now than I did before. If you put on quality shows, people come.
Playboy: The stakes are different, though. When there were three networks, a successful show won 50 percent or more of an audience on a given night. Now the audience is sliced up among as many as 100 or more stations.
Moonves: At one time a 30 percent share was a poor showing. It meant you were getting less than a third of the market. Now that's a very big number.
Playboy: Does that mean the big network newscasts are a thing of the past?
Moonves: We still get an enormous number of people, far more than any cable station. And networks still do some things better than anyone else.
Playboy: What do you do better?
Moonves: Big events. I don't mean only the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. Survivor is an event each week. So is CSI. Our job is to cast our net wide, whereas cable stations such as MTV and ESPN have specific focuses.
Playboy: The TV was once the new fireplace, where families watched together.
Moonves: No question about it. Now you don't assume that anybody is watching with anybody. The father is in one room watching the NBA, the mother is watching her show in another room, the teenagers are watching MTV, and the little kids are watching Nickelodeon. But the big hits are watched by everybody, even if they're in different rooms watching different TV sets. Millions watch CSI, 18-year-olds and 60-year-olds. And people gather to watch TV in other places now. That's new too. You see it for big events, whether CSI or the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl. In fact, I don't think we get enough credit for the multiperson room. We don't get credit when 200 people watch at a sports bar or a fraternity house where 30 guys are there drinking beer and watching a basketball game. We think Letterman is underrated for that reason. He's watched by a lot more people than are watching Leno late at night in frat houses all around America. We're trying to change the ratings so they can track that.
Playboy: Are you competitive with HBO, which recently cleaned up at the television awards ceremonies?
Moonves: HBO has done a remarkable job and deserved its awards. But it's competing on a different playing field. The Sopranos takes twice as long to shoot and costs twice as much as an episode of CSI. HBO has to produce only 13 of them a year compared with 23 for our shows. It's a different economic model. And it's easier when you have to put on three or four shows at a time. I have to fill up 22 hours, plus all our other programming. It's a different business. I'm a big admirer of what HBO has done. I love its programming. I love The Sopranos. HBO head Chris Albrecht is a good friend. I tease him by saying, "You're the second-best executive in television."
Playboy: There are other differences. HBO can show nudity.
Moonves: And a level of violence that we can't touch.
Playboy: Do you wish you could?
Moonves: Sometimes. But once again we have the public trust. We're always in a quandary over it. If we don't push, the critics say, "Those network guys are doing the same old, same old, same old." When we push, however, people flock to complain that we shouldn't be doing what we're doing on network television. A show like CSI pushes the envelope without going over the line and making the FCC crazy.
Playboy: Or your advertisers. When won't you kowtow to them?
Moonves: There have been episodes of CSI that certain advertisers have not wanted to be in.
Playboy: Because of the violence?
Moonves: The violence or the subject matter. We did one episode about cannibalism. There were some food sponsors who didn't want to be in there. Our advertisers pay the bills. In a lot of ways they, along with the FCC, are our checks and balances.
Playboy: The FCC fined you $550,000 for Janet Jackson's exposed breast. Why have you refused to pay it?
Moonves: We think what she did was terribly wrong, but we should not be fined for that behavior. The FCC is claiming prior knowledge and responsibility. We're fighting it. There was no prior knowledge. And how can we be responsible for something she did? Is ESPN responsible for televising the basketball game in which Ron Artest ran into the stands? That's not showing kids a good thing either. If at a news conference someone takes off their clothes and runs across the stage, is it our fault? As a result of the Janet Jackson thing, we have taken precautions, adding a five-second delay to everything on our network other than live news and sports. We have a delay on halftime shows for sporting events. We have a delay at awards shows. We have taken precautions so that it won't happen again. I believe the FCC should say, "All right, CBS has acted responsibly to address a problem that occurred." That should be the end of it.
Playboy: Did you buy Jackson's excuse that she had a wardrobe malfunction?
Moonves: No. I felt double-crossed. She knew what she was doing. I don't think this was an accident in any way.
Playboy: Whether or not she planned it, was it much ado about nothing? After all, it was only a breast. The nipple, covered with what looked like an ornate star, wasn't even exposed.
Moonves: It clearly was the straw that broke the camel's back in this country. There had been a lot of pressure from the government about morality and indecency. It was an election year. What elected official isn't against indecency? It gave people a rallying cry.
Playboy: How much is indecency determined by the political and social climate of the time? Would the incident have passed unnoticed a few years ago, in a less conservative climate?
Moonves: Exposing your breast to a national audience during a football game would always have been inappropriate. It just is. It's disrespectful to the audience. That said, this is a conservative climate. The FCC's decision not to exonerate in advance the people who were going to show Saving Private Ryan is patently absurd. It's absurd that some ABC affiliates did not want to show a movie about World War II heroes by arguably the greatest filmmaker of our time. The movie is about D-day and, yes, thousands of Americans lost their lives. People use four-letter words. My guess is that a soldier being shot at by Nazis is not saying, "Oh my goodness." Stations were worried that they would be fined and went to the FCC and asked in advance if they would get in trouble, and the FCC stayed silent. In my view both the stations and the FCC were wrong. People are living in fear. It's a dangerous precedent.
Playboy: Are they overreacting?
Moonves: All I know is that they keep telling us morality is the number one issue in America, yet the number one shows in the nation--in blue and red states--are CSI, about murder, and Desperate Housewives, about adultery.
Playboy: Although you refused to pay the FCC fine for the Janet Jackson incident, you recently settled one related to Howard Stern.
Moonves: Yes. It was part of a larger settlement. The FCC is partly why Howard is leaving. He felt it restricted him. He's going to Sirius Radio, where he can do what he wants and no one is sitting on a buzzer.
Playboy: The FCC censored Stern, but did he go too far for your personal taste?
Moonves: I would turn his show off at times, but some episodes of some CBS shows aren't my taste either.
Playboy: Stern isn't leaving just because of the censorship. He'll be making an enormous salary.
Moonves: It's a $100 million deal, and I can't blame him for taking it. I'm sorry to see him go.
Playboy: Even though he went after you on his show a number of times, once calling you a snake?
Moonves: Yes, there were some not so good moments, but there were also some very good ones. Our relationship is good now. I ran into him recently. We were both caught off guard, and we talked. I told him I'm sorry he's leaving.
Playboy: Afterward he described the meeting on the air. He described Julie Chen, your wife since Christmas, as hot.
Moonves: It was flattering to her.
Playboy: Were you initially angry when he exposed your personal life--your divorce from your wife and relationship with Chen--on the radio?
Moonves: It's part of the deal when you work with someone like Howard. You can't be in this business if you have a thin skin.
Playboy: How much impact will his departure have on Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting?
Moonves: Had he stayed, our profit margin would have shrunk down to very little because of his salary. But he has an enormous following, and he'll be difficult to replace. He has been a staple on these stations, but I guarantee you the air will not be dead during those hours.
Playboy: How big a threat is satellite radio to traditional networks such as Viacom's Infinity?
Moonves: It's a big question. A lot of people have invested a lot of money in satellite. They're betting that satellite is the new cable television. Up until now they've lost a lot. Networks missed the boat when they said people wouldn't pay $9.95 for cable TV when they could get free television. Arguably, though, radio is a different animal than television, and we haven't gotten involved in satellite. But we'll see.
Playboy: Are you more optimistic about Internet radio?
Moonves: As with satellite radio, I know some very smart people who believe in Internet radio. We're looking into it, but at the moment we're committed to terrestrial radio.
Playboy: What will be the impact of video on demand on your TV networks?
Moonves: We're looking at that, too. Video on demand is huge. You're a fool if you're in this business and not watching these things. I'm amazed by video on demand. I'm amazed by telephony and by my kids watching movies and playing music on their telephones.
Playboy: Are you worried about TiVo?
Moonves: Obviously we're doing a lot of research on TiVo. For now it has only a four percent penetration. If in five years it has, let's say, 50 percent, that's not necessarily bad news for us. The number of television shows people who use TiVo watch is greatly increased. The programs most people watch on TiVo are top 10 shows. So if you're doing well as a network, your shows will be watched by more people.
Playboy: Potentially without commercials, though. How do your advertisers respond?
Moonves: People who zap commercials are holding down the button. To zap the commercials, they are watching the commercials. Believe it or not, in many ways the impressions are deeper than for other viewers, especially for the person who, when the commercial comes on, gets up and wanders around the room or gets a beer or whatever.
Playboy: What about when TiVos or their equivalent zap commercials for you?
Moonves: There's a possibility that they won't be able to do that legally. Another possibility is that they will be able to do it, but you'll have to pay a subscription fee like people pay for cable. The bottom line is that we're going to have to be paid for our shows. It costs more than $2 million to do an episode of CSI. I have to pay for it. Either Colgate or Ford or Anheuser-Busch will pay for it, or you will pay for it directly.
Playboy: Might product placement in TV shows pay for it?
Moonves: It will help a lot.
Playboy: How do advertisers feel about product placement? Is it less effective than a traditional commercial?
Moonves: It's more effective if you do it properly and unobtrusively. During the first year of Survivor, for one challenge the winning team got Budweiser and Doritos. They were on a desert island with nothing to eat or drink, so they were jumping up and down over a can of Budweiser and Doritos as if they had won the lottery. It was effective advertising.
Playboy: At what point does product placement compromise the entertainment value of a show?
Moonves: That's why it has to be unobtrusive. I don't want Survivor to look like The Price Is Right. I want it done well. Our creators are realizing that this is a way of life. Their shows have to be paid for. If that means shooting a scene in a Lowe's hardware store as opposed to someone's kitchen, they'll do it.
Playboy: Other than video on demand, TiVo and product placement, what else is coming down the road to change television?
Moonves: Clearly entertainment of all kinds will be tied to the Internet. You may well get most, if not all, of your entertainment from the Internet in one way or another, whether it's coming to your home, your car, your mobile phone, wherever. We're looking at all these things, and it's hard to know where to place your bets. At our core, though, we continue to bet that people will want quality programming no matter how they get it. At heart I am a programmer. To me that's the name of the game.
Playboy: What are your biggest challenges as CBS's programmer in chief?
Moonves: We're looking at shows for two years down the road. We're improving CBS Sports. We just made a significant deal with the NFL. We're beginning to take the lead in late night with Letterman. I think his show is better than ever. His ratings are climbing, and he beat Leno for the first time. We're winning Monday night.
Playboy: Yet in overall ratings Letterman still trails Leno.
Moonves: It's changing. For a long time Leno had better lead-in shows. And maybe Leno is more middle-of-the-road. Letterman is more clever, and his comedy is more original. At 11:30 at night, maybe people want to be more comfortable. Letterman is edgier and more creative. I like his show better.
Playboy: Yet he nearly left CBS a couple of years ago when ABC was seducing him.
Moonves: Fortunately we were able to persuade him to stay.
Playboy: For $31.5 million a year.
Moonves: The money was only a small part of it. He wanted better promotion and support.
Playboy: NBC announced that Conan O'Brien will replace Leno in five years. Who will take over for Letterman?
Moonves: Dave isn't going anywhere for a while. It's hard for me to fathom why they did this five years in advance. I think Conan was being wined and dined by other networks, and NBC wanted to tie him up. Otherwise there's no practical reason to do that. You don't want to make your main guy a lame duck for five years.
Playboy: You've probably seen every variety of pitch known to man. What was the most outrageous?
Moonves: Someone came in with a gorilla and pitched some sort of chimp show. I was pitched a show about West Point, and 12 cadets came into my office and sang. The Spice Girls came in and sang before they were the Spice Girls.
Playboy: How did you respond?
Moonves: I said, "You guys are terrific, but I don't know what to do with you."
Playboy: What's the best way to pitch to you?
Moonves: MOONVES: Make it short. Tell me where the show would work on our schedule, why it would work, what's different about it--but keep it all within five minutes. Who is involved in it? I have to say it's usually more about the people than anything else. How would you have pitched the greatest comedies of the past couple of decades? Cheers: "It's a show about eight people in a bar." Friends: "Six people in their early 20s who are trying to make it in New York City." Seinfeld: "Four people who live in an apartment building." The Cosby Show: "A middle-class family with five children in Brooklyn." Everybody Loves Raymond is about a son with a wife and three kids who lives across the street from his mother. They don't sound like much. People on the street come up to me all the time and pitch shows--"I work in a shoe store. It's the funniest group of people." It may be, but what will make it a good show? Who are the people who will make it work? Have you dealt with them before? Do they have the ability to pull it off? When we order a show to go to series, we're basically giving somebody $12 million to $20 million. If it's somebody off the street, even if he's a smart kid with a good idea, we're going to pass.
Playboy: What were your favorite shows when you were growing up?
Moonves: I loved The Dick Van Dyke Show. I loved Mission: Impossible. For news our family watched Walter Cronkite like the rest of America.
Playboy: What did your parents do for a living?
Moonves: My father owned gas stations in New York.
Playboy: How important were TV and movies to you?
Moonves: Television was important, but my mother allowed only a certain amount of TV a day. Frankly, I preferred sports. I played baseball, basketball, stickball in the street, touch football. That's what I lived for. My heroes were Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown.
Playboy: Why did you decide to be an actor instead of a professional athlete?
Moonves: If I could have been anything, I would have been a professional athlete. But I realized early that my career wasn't going much further than stickball on the street. So I went into acting.
Playboy: What was your most embarrassing television performance?
Moonves: I played a Mexican pearl diver on an episode of Cannon. This was back when you didn't have to be politically correct--you didn't have to be Hispanic to play a Hispanic. I was in a Speedo, talking with a Spanish accent, saying, "No, seÃ±or, my name is not Paco" or something like that. No, my acting career was not terribly illustrious. All the time I was acting, I was thinking I was probably better at other things. I'm a control freak, and it bugged me that actors aren't in total control of their lives. It was a logical shift to producing, which I loved. I began producing theater and then television.
Playboy: After turning CBS around, you're now apparently on the short list for the top spot at Disney. Well?
Moonves: Whenever a big job opens up, there are 10 candidates whose names are recycled. I'm on the list. But I'm very happy at Viacom. I love CBS.
Playboy: But you've said you like the challenge of starting at the bottom. Might Disney be an appropriate challenge?
Moonves: I'm not going to touch that one.
Playboy: At Viacom you and Tom Freston are apparently competing for the top job, which will open when Sumner Redstone retires.
Moonves: Which won't happen anytime soon.
Playboy: He said he will step down in 2007. Are you and Freston vying for his job?
Moonves: There is so much on our plates, the last thing Tom and I want to do is go mano a mano. For the press it's a sexy thing to write about, but neither of us is looking at it that way. I'm going to do everything I can to make my units as successful as they can be. He is too. Tom and I speak a number of times during the week. When we're in the same city we try to get together for breakfast to catch up. In the meantime Sumner is still full of vim and vigor. He is actively involved. We speak every other day and sometimes three or four times a day if there's a crisis. Sumner is respectful of the operations but remains very involved.
Playboy: Are you ever overwhelmed by the responsibilities he has given you?
Moonves: Sometimes I wish I could go home and forget about work, but I never do. My BlackBerry is with me on Saturdays and Sundays. I work all the time, but I get excited every day coming to work. You never know what will hit. I'm like the little Dutch boy. As soon as you plug one hole, there's another leak. This is an enormous responsibility. To put on good shows, you're going to make mistakes, and everybody is not going to like what you do all the time. You can't play it safe in this job. Thirty million people are watching.