CBS’ Les Moonves: You may have the flashy devices, but we still have the content

Les Moonves, president of CBS Corp., was in Austin on Monday to receive an award from the University of Texas and give a lecture called “The Networks Strike Back: How Old Media Has Adapted to the New World.” It was exactly what you’d guess from the title: A full-throated defense of the broadcast networks’ vitality in a media landscape where new media companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Netflix are making most of the headlines and shaping most of the media consumption.

Moonves’ talk could have been subtitled: “It’s still the content, stupid.” His argument was simple: All these devices and platforms may be changing the way we consume media, but they’re not changing the content we consume on that media. Well-produced, high-quality content will win out on any platform, and the deep-pocketed networks (CBS in particular, of course) are still the ones producing that “professional content” without which the new-media innovations wouldn’t have any real value.

Moonves was unshakably optimistic — he didn’t give the curmudgeon’s dismissal of the Internet; he simply described it as just another medium for the existing media powers like his own company to colonize and extend their brands.

Before his talk, Moonves took some questions from 15 or so UT grad students (I was one) and gave a few more candid applications of his philosophy — you might call it a sort of new media Manifest Destiny — to various areas. Here are a few of the choice quotes.

“No matter how they share it, they have to come to us for our content. And we’re going to get paid properly for it, or else we’re not going to do it.”

This was in response to a question about what CBS was doing to put their content on mobile devices. This is the issue of the day at CBS, Moonves said, though the company is comfortable in taking it at their own pace.

Moonves spoke about the Googles, Apples and Amazons of the world with what I saw a sort of veiled condescension — he repeatedly referred to their executives as “geniuses” who were changing the way the world consumes media, but without quality content, he said, their technologies are just blank screens. And because Moonves sees CBS’ content as holding so much value, he’s fine with withholding that content from a platform until he feels it gets the money it’s worth.

The second part of that quote is a common sentiment among media executives these days, but you usually see it followed with something to the effect of, “…and that’s why we’re going to begin charging for all of our online content, starting in 2011…” But when it was brought up later, Moonves was pretty cool to the idea of a paywall for news (he was never directly asked about it, but said he doesn’t believe anybody would pay for CBS News’ content online because they can get it for free elsewhere).

So Moonves is pretty picky about getting paid for CBS’ content, but he’s also picky about what content he’ll charge for and where. CBS is the only network that doesn’t put its videos on Hulu, because Moonves wants to be free to use them elsewhere, too. As for Apple’s world of products …

“Let’s see how your experiment goes, and my guess is if we want to join in January, you’ll take our content.”

This was Moonves’ characterization of his conversation with Apple’s Steve Jobs’ (or, more precisely, Jobs’ people — he said he’s only talked to Steve about paid content once) about Apple’s new 99-cent TV show rental plan through iTunes.

Moonves seems to have no problem taking a wait-and-see approach with new content forms and pricing plans: Watch others experiment, and if it looks successful, jump on it. He made it clear that CBS does want to be involved in this stuff — it’s just going to do it on its own terms, because as Moonves sees it, CBS holds all the cards as a provider of valuable content. As he said in his lecture, “The guys who produce the best content, the best programming, are in the driver’s seat.”

“It has to change. Otherwise, it will go down.”

Moonves on the half-hour evening newscast. CBS will always produce a nightly evening newscast, Moonves said, as it’s “part of our agreement with the American people that we will do that.” But he sees the form of that newscast changing radically — and probably soon.

He tossed out the idea of turning the evening news into more of a Nightline-style in-depth examination of one or two issues, or an extended discussion a la Face the Nation.

Some of the reason for those changes is the fact that by the time people get home in the evening, they already know the day’s news, Moonves said. But another key factor is cost. Moonves said repeatedly that the model of maintaining costly foreign bureaus and a sizable reporting staff primarily to feed only a half-hour daily news show isn’t a good one, and CBS hasn’t been doing it as well since its extensive cuts over the past several years. A nightly show based on fewer issues or commentary would be much cheaper — though an often-discussed merger with CNN (which Moonves referenced without going into specifics) would change those economics quite a bit, too.

“The Katie Couric deal will be the last big deal of that kind ever done. … Those days are over, because the news no longer generates the kind of revenue or success that’s worth doing [those contracts].”

Another way to cut costs: Don’t sign marquee anchors to eight-figure annual salaries. Not only was Moonves he won’t do that again, but he was asserting that no one will do that again. Why?

“We thought it would make a difference. It didn’t.”

Oh. I guess there’s that.

“We have to be down the middle as best we can. We have licenses. We are a public trust.”

This was Moonves’ response to a question about whether CBS would begin moving into advocacy journalism with the cable-news success of MSNBC and Fox News. As a network, we have a responsibility to play everything down the middle, Moonves said. It’s certainly not a surprising response, though it is yet another affirmation of the dominance of Jay Rosen’s “view from nowhere” in the mainstream American political press.

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05. October 2010 by Mark
Categories: mobile media, television | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 7 comments

  • Tim

    “No matter how they share it, they have to come to us for our content. And we’re going to get paid properly for it, or else we’re not going to do it.”

    -Poop jokes are very valuable, in terms of content. 2.5 Men, #% My Dad Said, Big Bang, etc, etc.
    -Game Shows
    -Freak Shows (Big Brother(with Mrs Moonves), Amazing Race, Big Brother, Survival?)
    -Cop Shows done and re-done (CSI Mount Pilot, CSI Vatican City, NCIS 1, 2, 3, 4….)

    “The Katie Couric deal will be the last big deal of that kind ever done. … Those days are over, because the news no longer generates the kind of revenue or success that’s worth doing [those contracts].”
    -Except, of course, Mrs Moonves

    “We have to be down the middle as best we can. We have licenses. We are a public trust.”

    -The Early Show? With Mrs Moonves (3rd place morning variety show)
    -48 Hours??? Really???

    Good Night and Good Luck, Mr Moonves

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  • Tom Johnson

    Nice summary of the talk Mark and interesting information about what was said in the UT graduate student session. I thought it was interesting comparing CBS to a raptor since it rarely seems to take the lead on innovation. Also I thought it interesting that he equated quality content with content that attracts advertisers and ratings.

  • Mark

    Tom – Yes, I thought his equation of quality content with big ratings and advertising dollars was interesting, too. That view was especially clear when a grad student asked Moonves, “Why does anyone watch Two and a Half Men?” and he essentially answered, “I don’t know, but apparently people find it funny, because it makes us a lot of money.” The other thing that I think was pretty clear is that Moonves equates quality content with content that is expensive to produce.

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