Moonves sees silver linings

At HRTS luncheon, CBS boss says 2012 election will boost company

Not even bipartisan bickering or the NBA lockout can shake Leslie Moonves’ faith in the broadcast TV business.

The CBS Corp. CEO managed to find the silver lining in even the darkest clouds over the country’s media landscape in a one-on-one Q&A Thursday with Variety media columnist Brian Lowry at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon.

Even as Moonves predicted that the tone of the 2012 presidential election would be as mean-spirited as usual, he noted that the inevitable influx of attack ads will benefit his company’s TV and radio holdings.

“Sometimes the amount of contention going on in Washington is a very good thing for our business,” Moonves told the Beverly Hilton audience, estimating that CBS Corp. stood to take a 10% chunk of the political dollars already flowing to broadcast coffers.

Moonves was equally sanguine regarding the fallout should NBA owners and players be unable to come to terms and salvage even part of the season. Though he expressed doubt that the entire season would be canceled, he said CBS Corp. stood to profit. “If all that NBA money goes away, it’s got to go some place,” he said. “It’s not the worst thing to happen to our company.”

That said, Moonves shared mixed feelings on the escalating price of rights to sports programming in general. While touting the value of his conglom’s deals for NFL and NCAA basketball programming, he noted that CBS could not have afforded to lock in NCAA rights without sharing costs with Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting.

“Some of these rights have gone haywire,” he said.

While Moonves hailed Netflix for being a new buyer in the expanding market for broadcast content, he did take a dig at the streaming service’s original programming plan, which involves the upcoming drama series “House of Cards.”

“You don’t sorta jump until you absolutely have to,” he said with regard to Netflix’s decision to skip over the pilot and order 22 episodes.

Moonves also defended the Eye’s recently announced effort to revamp its morning show by leaning into hard news with new anchors including Charlie Rose. “To do a poor imitation of the ‘Today’ show or ‘GMA’ is not the way to go,” he said.

Moonves’ most candid remarks came with regard to CBS Films, which he admitted was struggling out of the gate given that three of the five films released so far merely managed to break even. But he’s sticking to the division’s game plan of finding mid-sized titles. “I don’t think it was the wrong strategy; it was the wrong films,” he said of the unit’s first-year investments.

The CEO also reflected on the controversy surrounding the departure from CBS hit “Two and a Half Men” of Charlie Sheen, whom Moonves wished well in his new Lionsgate-backed TV show on FX. He praised “Two and a Half Men’s” ratings and new star Ashton Kutcher but expressed misgivings regarding the star’s recent tweets regarding events at Penn State U.

Kutcher has retracted remarks criticizing the removal of PSU coach Joe Paterno, explaining that he wasn’t aware of the child-abuse incident at the time he issued the tweet.

Moonves also told a story about negotiations he had to oversee regarding a past CBS star, “Everybody Loves Raymond” lead Ray Romano, who just happened to have been represented by Moonves’ brother, attorney Jon Moonves. Turns out salary talks got so contentious that he had to walk away from the negotiation table and leave it to execs, including his lieutenant Nancy Tellem.

But when the CBS chief found himself sitting with their mother later that week, he couldn’t help taking a swipe at his brother. “Your son is an asshole,” Moonves informed his mother.

As the HRTS crowd roared, Moonves added that he felt his brother got the best of CBS in the negotiation. “Nancy gave up much more than I would have,” he joked.