Money-loser became ratings-winner during exec's reign

HOLLYWOOD — Leslie Moonves has quietly signed a new five-year deal to remain as prexy and CEO of  top-rated CBS.

Eye topper’s last pact, signed in July 1999, was set to expire next year, but Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone and prexy/chief operating officer Mel Karmazin made it clear that they wanted Moonves to stay and convinced the exec to re-up early. Exec, who joined CBS in 1995, is now set to stay with the Eye through at least 2008, a 13-year run that will cement his place as one of the longest-serving network programmers in TV history.

That, of course, assumes Moonves isn’t promoted to an even higher rank within Viacom.

While exec is giving up his seat on the Viacom board of directors as part of a restructuring aimed at bringing in independent voices — Moonves was the only Viacom operating chief on the board — the exec’s star within the conglom has never been brighter.

CBS is certain to finish the 2002-03 season next month as the most-watched network, while placing second among adults 25-54, the net’s stated demo target. It’s currently tied with ABC for third place among adults 18-49, though the Eye has managed to milk millions out of young-adult hits such as “CSI,” “Survivor” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Even more importantly, CBS has gone from a money-loser to a major profit center under Moonves.

Redstone seemed to hint at Moonves’ new deal earlier this month when he announced the Eye exec had agreed to step down from the board.

“We appreciate his service to the board and are grateful that Viacom shareholders will continue to benefit from his experience and judgment in the years to come,” Redstone said, calling Moonves “one of the most talented executives in the entertainment business.”

Moonves has added new duties on a regular basis since coming to CBS from Warner Bros. TV eight years ago.

Originally tapped in 1998 as head of entertainment, Moonves was given control of news, sports, sales, marketing and several other corporate units.

He assumed oversight of still-struggling weblet UPN in late 2001.

Before Karmazin inked a new three-year deal with Viacom last month, there had been talk Moonves might be part of a triumvirate of execs that would rule Viacom in the event Karmazin left — another sign of how much Moonves’ stock has soared since Viacom acquired CBS.

Many industry insiders believe it’s only a matter of time before Moonves is given still more power, perhaps gaining a greater role in Viacom’s TV production arms.

Yet even as he has gobbled up power, Moonves has remained intimately involved in the day-to-day management of CBS’ primetime sked, right down to the casting of series.

Under Moonves and CBS Entertainment prexy Nancy Tellem, CBS has won the reputation as the most stable and consistent of the broadcast nets. Indeed, only three senior execs have left CBS since Moonves joined, an almost unheard of phenom in a town where TV nets regularly reshuffle top management every two or three years. The longest serving non-owner programming chief in CBS history remains Frank Stanton, who ran the Eye for a quarter-century from 1946 until 1971.

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