CBS chief to get closer to tech-savvy audiences

This article was updated at 6:04 p.m.

Las Vegas — At the Consumer Electronics Show Tuesday, CBS topper Leslie Moonves telegraphed that his network is trying to get closer to tech-savvy consumers, incorporating their ideas into TV shows, creating CBS-branded virtual worlds, and delivering video content in more convenient ways. Trotting out Internet entrepreneurs including YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and Blake Krikorian, co-founder of Sling Media, as well as show creators like Anthony Zuiker of the “CSI” franchise, Moonves explained that CBS is “using technology to connect with our audience, learn from them, and form deeper, more interactive communities around our content.” He labeled CBS “an audience company,” not just a content company.

In an interview prior to his keynote address, Moonves said CBS wasn’t afraid to experiment with new technologies even if the revenue models were still hazy, but he also highlighted CBS’ ratings lead in old- fashioned tube viewership.

Interestingly, Moonves said in the interview that discussions continue among the networks about creating a video site that would rival YouTube. “We haven’t entirely written it off,” he said, asserting that the talks weren’t simply part of a negotiating tactic to extract more favorable revenue-sharing deals with YouTube, the leading video site. Asked whether it might be too late for a jointly- developed site to build a sizable audience, Moonves said, “I don’t agree that there’s too much ground to make up.”

Moonves also said in the pre-keynote interview that CBS is “still exploring” the notion of creating a “small, independent movie company to produce as well as distribute movies.” A new movie division would be “almost risk-free,” Moonves said, since CBS could promote and distribute titles through Showtime, CBS Paramount International Television, and its existing DVD distribution arm. Taking the idea forward, he said, is simply a matter of finding the right execs to run it.

The most potentially controversial announcement made as part of Moonves’ Tuesday afternoon keynote was a new service called “Clip+Sling” from Sling Media. Sling Media makes the $149 Slingbox device,

which allows a consumer to remotely access the live TV and cable programming she receives at home (or digitally-recorded content) using a laptop or cell phone. A new pact between CBS and Sling Media will allow Slingbox users to send clips from CBS shows to their friends via e-mail.

But Brian Jaquet, a Sling Media spokesman, said Slingbox owners would be able to use the “Clip+Sling” service to grab segments from shows on any network, or movies being broadcast on television, and then post them to a public, YouTube-like video sharing portal. Unclear as yet is whether there will be length limitations on these clips, but the service could rile content owners and guilds by making it exceptionally easy for users to grab and republish TV content. Jaquet said the “Clip+Sling” service would launch sometime in the second quarter.

Las Vegas native Zuiker talked about the ways that bloggers and viewers who participated in “CSI” fan sites like CSIFiles.com had influenced the course of the show, suggesting, for instance, that David Caruso’s character “loosen the tie and get a girlfriend,” as Zuiker put it. Shortly, Claire Forlani was cast as Caruso’s new love interest. (Zuiker told the audience that ten years ago, he supported his family by driving a tram between the Mirage and Treasure Island.)

YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley took the stage to plug a contest that “Late Late Show” host Craig Ferguson launched recently to solicit videos from his viewers. The winning entries will air on CBS on Super Bowl Sunday.

Philip Rosedale, head of the company that operates the online virtual world “Second Life,” joined Moonves onstage to announce the creation of a “Star Trek”-themed area inside the world.

Moonves’ keynote was the raciest in recent Consumer Electronics Show memory, including some questionable video of young women using a Webcam site to bare their breasts to CBS radio hosts Opie & Anthony, and a sizzling teaser for the Showtime series “The L World.” Moonves quipped about the latter, “Well, that should melt some TiVos.”

Moonves made his first appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show last January, during a presentation by Google co-founder Larry Page.

It was then that he announced a deal with Google to sell TV shows at $1.99 an episode on Google Video. But Google hasn’t promoted the shows heavily, and Moonves said on Tuesday that he had concluded that on the Internet, “ad-supported models have worked better than pay-per- downloads.”

But whether the programming is supported by ads on CBS.com or sold on Apple’s iTunes store for $1.99 an episode, only a fraction of CBS shows are currently available online. “We’re looking to expand it in a way that generates revenue,” Moonves said. To do that, CBS will also have to cut deals with others studios that produce some of the shows it airs.

Other execs addressing the Consumer Electronics Show on Tuesday included Dell Computer founder Michael Dell and Cisco chairman John Chambers. But much of the buzz at the show centered around Apple’s announcement of its new cell phone and Apple TV set-top box, made in San Francisco at a much smaller trade show, Macworld.

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