Leslie Moonves on Future of CBS Post-Sumner Redstone, NFL Rights, Pulling ‘Truth’ Ads

Leslie Moonves Claudia Eller Variety Dealmakers Breakfast
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CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves gave the keynote address at Variety‘s annual Dealmakers breakfast, and addressed key issues facing his business, ranging from the future of the company post-Sumner Redstone, the status of rights for the NFL and his feelings on the movie “Truth,” which depicted the events around a flawed “60 Minutes” report about former president George W. Bush.

In a Q&A conducted by Variety Co-Editor-in-Chief Claudia Eller, Moonves talked about the speculation swirling about the fate of Viacom and CBS in the wake of executive chairman Redstone’s failing health. “I don’t think Viacom and CBS should be reunited,” he said. “There’s no benefit for either company to be joined.” He also dismissed any notion that he would pursue buying CBS himself. “It’s not something that’s on my radar,” he said.

On the subject of NFL rights, he said while the Sunday package is profitable, the Thursday night rights have yet to cross that threshold. But he said he’s still going to pursue them given the support it offers to the rest of CBS’ lineup. “We’re not going to go in and lose a fortune on it,” he said. “The same people who are questioning me are going after the rights,” he joked.

Moonves also said CBS won’t be one of the bidders for the Los Angeles Times (“the print business is challenged”) or Yahoo. “The problem is they haven’t defined who they are or where they want to go,” he said.

Moonves praised the success of his TV divisions: CBS, Showtime (“David Nevins is doing a spectacular job”) and the CW. “The CW is in better shape than it’s ever been before,” he said. At CBS, he said the transition from Nina Tassler to Glenn Geller couldn’t have been smoother, and that while development isn’t as “sexy” as current, Geller was the perfect choice for the position. Geller’s challenge, he said, is competing for the best producers in the current climate.

That said, he dismissed the notion that there’s too much TV. “I don’t buy into that,” he said. “If you’re good enough to get on the air on CBS, your odds of success are higher.”

He acknowledged, though, he’s made some missteps over the course of his career at CBS, including giving up the rights to Charlie Brown (“ABC has been kicking us for it every holiday season since”) as well as letting Howard Stern go to radio. “Once again, we couldn’t match the money,” he said. “Sirius offered him $100 million a year, but Howard Stern really was the face of terrestrial radio. Even though he went on to David Letterman wearing an ‘I Hate Les Moonves’ T-shirt, I was sorry to lose him. It changed the face of the radio business.”

Moonves admitted he wasn’t a fan of the movie “Truth,” based on “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes’ book. “That’s the most wrong title I’ve ever heard,” he said. “The movie was full of inaccuracies.” He pointed to the movie’s low box-office performance as evidence that “America agreed.” He also defended his decision not to let ads for the movie appear on CBS. “I’ll stand behind it every day of the week,” he said.

He also addressed the current presidential race, crediting political ads with fueling an uptick in local radio business. “We love what’s going on out there in the Republican Party,” he said. “We want all 16 (candidates) to stay in and we want them to kill each other.” He singled out Donald Trump, too: “I love the idea that he wants to charge CNN. He thinks he’s still on ‘The Apprentice,'” he joked.

Moonves talked, too, about CBS Films, admitting the movie business is tough. “I like the TV business much better,” he said. “I understand it much better. You can make more money in it.” He singled out upcoming projects, including one about the Boston bombing and another based on “American Assassin.” “We’re going to hang in there in a limited way,” he said. “It’s not going to be a major division of our company. We’re not going to do $100 million movies. We’re like a small independent that’s attached to CBS.”