Peter Bart: Moonves’ paradox

The CBS CEO is a throwback to Old Hollywood

Les Moonves is now entering his 10th year as CEO of CBS, and the mere mention of his name elicits a range of vehement opinions. On one point, however, there’s agreement: Moonves, more than any other contemporary industry executive, represents a throwback to the Irving Thalberg or Jack Warner school of power players in the Hollywood pantheon.

And the key reason is his total zeal for show business — for the story sessions, the casting, the scheduling, the negotiations, the intrigues. Moonves is not an accountant or an attorney, but rather a creature of the business, which helps account for his remarkable tenure. Agents complain about his grudges, producers about his micromanaging and news purists about his lack of respect for the traditions of TV journalism, but nearly everyone respects the sheer panache with which he runs his company, and the obvious joy he derives from it.

Hence the paradox of Moonves: He is very much Old Hollywood, while simultaneously playing a pivotal role in the events of the moment, as the giant corporations try to morph their content to exploit newly emerging platforms.

It was only a decade ago that CBS itself was struggling to crawl out of last place and shed its geezer image. Remember the season when no fewer than 11 anti-geezer series were introduced bearing titles like “Central Park West,” “Bless This House” or “American Gothic”? An ex-actor who had cultivated his executive swagger at Warner Bros. TV, Moonves knew he had a tough hill to climb, finding new shows to reshape his stolid demos.

He’s proven to be a master at the game of network resuscitation, and at the corporate machinations that accompany it. Witness the fact that Tom Freston presently sits on the sidelines while Moonves’ stock continues to rise.

Not all of his decisions have made sense, to be sure.

Moonves was convinced “The Fugitive” would be the hit show of 2000, not “CSI.” His mandate to reinvent network news with Katie Couric as its new superstar remains perplexing.

Snarky critics at the New York Times even subscribe to what they call the man-in-the-Moonves theory of CBS programming that pays subliminal homage to the network’s leadership style. CBS shows, they suggest, habitually feature the omniscient, workaholic male boss who is surrounded by young acolytes. (The Times relishes its Jungian approach to criticism.)

And his long-term strategy certainly has challenges. CBS has dallied with its downloads, but all the networks are losing ads to the Web, and if things are to continue growing, Moonves will have to try new adventures.

The latest rumors are that CBS is courting the Tribune Co. and entertaining schemes with Google — at once dealing with Old Media and New Media hurdles simultaneously.

Amid all this, Moonves, like the Hollywood lions of old, has been proven right more often than he’s been proven wrong. Indeed, it’s interesting to speculate how Moonves would perform were he running a major movie studio today along with his network (he’s alluded to this possibility in recent times). The Moonves studio would probably shape up like this:

  • Its movies would largely be built around upbeat stories with strong narratives. (“Audiences don’t like ‘dark’ ” is a famous Moonves bylaw.)
  • Decision-making would be quick and definitive, and if a filmmaker veered from his budget or his script, Moonves would quickly be in his face.
  • Star vehicles would swiftly move forward. Moonves has always championed star value, but avid agents would hit the wall if their appetites became too voracious. (“Les will bend on some major points, but then he’ll also kill you on your next deal, and he never forgets,” warns one top agent.)
  • Couric would turn up in a starring role — or maybe not. Moonves is, most of all, a realist.

The Moonves studio would likely be a winner. And people would enjoy its pizzazz just as they did at the MGM of old.

For someone that fearful of “dark” stories, Moonves has managed for a decade now to light up a lot of rooms. That, in itself, is a superb way to ensure longevity.

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