When CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves arrived at the company 20 years ago this summer, Clueless and Braveheart were burning up the box office, the “Macarena” virus was just taking hold in dance clubs — and the Eye network was pretty much in shambles. Longtime staples such as Murder, She Wrote and Murphy Brown were past their prime, overall ratings were headed south, and previous management had invested in a crop of young-skewing newcomers (remember Central Park West?) doomed to quick failure. CBS’s owners decided to take a chance on Moonves, the well-respected head of Warner Bros. TV who’d led the studio to glory with Friends and ER. And it paid off, big-time.
CBS Television, however, remains the focus of Moonves’s attention and power. At a time of massive turbulence in the TV universe, the Eye is widely considered to be America’s Last Great Network. Netflix might get better buzz; other broadcasters may boast sexier shows (Fox’s Empire or ABC’s Scandal). But people watch CBS — lots of people: The network has been TV’s most-watched destination for 12 of the last 13 years, and last season, it was the only one with an average weekly audience over 10 million viewers. The Big Bang Theory is one of the few comedies left on TV watched by huge numbers of both old and young viewers, while the weekly audience for NCIS is bigger than anything else. Size isn’t everything in TV these days, but it’s still incredibly important. Advertisers may be shifting their money elsewhere, but they still spend billions on television, making CBS’s ability to reach a wide audience all at once incredibly valuable.
While many CEOs at Moonves’s level go out of their way to avoid the press, speaking to reporters only rarely and in carefully controlled environments, the CBS leader has so far avoided closing himself off inside a bubble. At the company’s recent TV Critics Association press tour party, Moonves spent hours schmoozing — chatting up his stars, but also holding court (often off the record) with reporters from publications large and small. To mark the occasion of his 20th anniversary at CBS, Moonves also agreed to talk at length — and on the record — to Vulture. We chatted twice, by telephone, for a total of just over 90 minutes, and covered a broad range of topics: the rapid evolution of the TV business, the rise of Netflix, the flux in late night, the FCC’s regulation of sex and language, and even the disappointing casting of this year’s edition of Big Brother. Moonves also looked back on his early days at CBS and offered some insight into his management philosophy. What follows is an edited transcript of those conversations.
So, when you took over CBS in 1995, I remember people talking about how drastically the TV universe was changing. Whatever shifts were happening then seem minuscule compared to what’s going on now. What is the biggest difference between the business then and now?
It’s changed drastically, and you’re right — signs of that were there. [In 1995,] Fox [was] coming on, and basic cable. But now, when you’re dealing with a 500-channel cable universe and a billion-channel internet universe, and when you look at the number of original programs that are out there — the competition is truly phenomenal. At the end of the day, this gives me comfort: There are more places doing original programming, but it’s still about the programming. The reason the competition has gotten strong is because HBO has so many good series, and Showtime has so many good series, and FX has so many good series, and now you have the [streaming networks] who are doing good series. It is still about who has the good programming.
The other change you see — and it’s all sort of tied together — is before, there used to be one [main] source of revenue, and that was advertising. And there was a smaller syndication market, and a smaller international market. Now the different ways you get paid for your programming is phenomenally different. The back end of shows is as important as the front end, which allows us to do what we’ve done with summer programming. In the old days, you couldn’t live with those sorts of ratings [in the summer] because advertising wouldn’t cover the nutThe amount of money a network or studio invests in a production.. But now, with advertising and SVODSubscription Video on Demand, i.e., Netflix or Hulu.and international and other different windowingThis refers to various time frames during which a TV show is available on a given platform: network TV, video on demand, subscription video on demand, syndication, DVD, etc. , it’s almost like the ratings on Zoo don’t matter as much because I’m getting paid in a lot of different ways.
Despite all these other new revenue streams, don’t you get a little bit scared about where things are going? Ratings are way down, even at the cable networks. Cable subscriptions are trending down almost every quarter now. It sometimes feels like end-times for linear TV.
I’m not just being Pollyanna-ish about this. I made a statement a few months ago: Overnight ratings are virtually useless now. When I analyze the performance of a show, it is extremely different than it was even five years ago, no less 20 years ago. We use Elementary as an example. As a broadcast show against How to Get Away With Murder, at first blush, it’s a moderate-performing show at best. Then you add in the C3 [and] C7Forms of Nielsen ratings that measure how many viewers watch the commercials in a show within either three or seven days of its initial broadcast.ratings, and suddenly, it’s one of the most widely DVR’d shows after the fact. That [overnight] number jumps considerably, and that brings a considerable amount of revenue. Elementary is [also] one of the highest-selling international shows we have. Then you add in an SVOD sale, a cable sale, etc., etc., etc. Suddenly, Elementary becomes a remarkably successful show in our eyes. It’s truly a very different world when you’re looking at the economics.
But are all these different streams just allowing you to make up some of the money you’ve lost from advertisers? Or are you actually making more money than you used to from these shows?
It’s more profitable than it was. Look at the CBS revenues [and] what the network has done over the last 20 years. Our profits have gone up considerably. All these technology initiatives that supposedly were going to hurt us have actually helped us. SVOD has helped us. DVR has helped us. The ability to go online with our own content, CBS.com, and the trailing episodesThe most recent installments of a current TV show made available to consumers via video on demand (VOD) or a subscription service such as Hulu.— all have helped us. This isn’t about replacing. Yeah, sure: Ratings are down. It’s been a slow decline, but a decline. So let’s say I knock off 30 percent of my advertising revenue from 20 years ago. That is so much more made up [by] all these other sources of revenue that the profitability of these shows goes up an extraordinary amount. It’s a very different way of looking at programming than you did before, when you lived and died by reading the overnights.
That’s not to say that I don’t wake up in the morning and still look at the overnights, and the stock price, the first thing in the morning. But the revolution is happening, and it’s happening quicker than people thought it would. Our job is to continue to produce great content. There are new and better sources of revenue all the time. And that bodes really well for the future.
Netflix has expanded so much, so quickly. Amazon and Hulu seem equally determined to become full-service digital networks. Even if they’ve got a different business model than CBS or the other broadcasters, that has to have an impact on your game — and certainly on Showtime.
I don’t quite look at it that way. No. 1, it’s fine to ramp up that quickly. [But] it’s hard to have quality programming to that great an extent. No. 2, they are still buying our shows. They started out initially buying a big library deal from us, which they’ve renewed on a lesser basis — but they still want our shows. [Netflix] still has Zoo, four days later, for $1 million an episode. Look, are they a friend and a competitor? Of course they are. Are they trying to compete with Showtime? Absolutely. Do they have a lot more production than Showtime? Yes, they do. Yes, they do. They’re spending a lot of money. It’s very nice to be under a model where revenues count but earnings don’t. So they’re taking their high revenues, and they’re investing in programming — and it appears to be working for them. God knows, House of Cards is a great show, and Orange Is the New Black is a great show. You know, we’ll see what they do. But it’s not hurting Showtime. Showtime subscribers continue to go up. And our over-the-top serviceA way to get content directly to consumers without a cable subscription or local affiliate, such as HBO Now, Netflix, or CBS All Access.is working really well so far.
So, no negative effect on your businesses?
The thing that concerns me a little bit more is the talent drain. There is definitely a talent drain going on out there. [Streaming networks] are often able to go to somebody and say, “Okay, we’re going to give you 13 [episodes] off the bat based on an idea. And we will give you more than your license fee, so you’ll be in profit right away.” And a lot of people are very attracted to that … there is no question some of the talent is now very attracted to the ten-episode arc.
But [with streaming], you’re never going to make the kind of money that a Chuck Lorre makes on The Big Bang Theory. You get a slight profit, but you’re never going to hit a home run. If you have a hit show with us, the ability to cash in later on it becomes a lot greater. Chuck would not be in the position he is in today, financially, without being on broadcast. Jerry Bruckheimer, the same. So there still is that great advantage to doing the network game. And look, we’re rolling with those punches. [Through CBS Studios,] we’re in development with Netflix and with Amazon about original programming. What has made this company work is our ability to look forward, to say, “The existing business is not going away, but we better be in the new model, so ideally, no matter where they’re watching, they’re watching our programming.” And that’s what’s happening.
The Netflix model of premium programming on-demand is changing viewers’ expectations of what TV should be — or at least what it can be. HBO and FX upped the game when they moved into originals, too, and you can argue that it helped push other networks to make their shows better. Does CBS programming have to adapt somehow?
You talk about adaptation. Look, 18 million people still watch NCIS every week. Twenty million people still watch The Big Bang Theory. The Good Wife, which, qualitatively, is as good as anything out there — I don’t think there’s anything on HBO that gets watched by more people than The Good Wife. House of Cards? It’s a brilliant show. It’s not watched by as many people who watch The Good Wife. Our procedurals still work really well. Do we look toward the future to America’s taste? Yeah. As a corporation, we have Showtime. We have Ray Donovan. Then you go to CBS. We have NCIS and The Good Wife. Then you go to the CW. We have Jane the Virgin. And then you go to syndication. We have Dr. Phil and Judge Judy. So, in every part, we do terrific shows for their qualitative audience. For CBS to adapt? That’s totally the wrong word. For the 20 years that I’ve been here, we’ve been able to slowly build up this place to a point where we have quite a variety of television shows. I don’t know that we’ve been influenced one iota by what’s going on elsewhere.
Doesn’t CBS, though, have to make sure its shows at least appear more “premium” in a world where there’s so much expensive content being produced by other suppliers?
I don’t know if it’s that. Qualitatively, we’re always striving for really top-notch stuff. What’s changed — and this is dealing with an earlier question — is that there needs to be something that says, “Okay, you’re going to be competing against 100 shows. How are you going to stand out? How are we going to be able to promote this, and then, after promoting it, what’s going to make them come back?” You need to be more special than before. So when we put on Angel From HellA new CBS fall comedy starring Jane Lynch.this year — that’s got something you can grab onto. There were other comedies we had in development that were very good, but we said, “Okay, that’s another family sitcom, there’s no way to sell that.” That is what makes it more and more difficult — to make yourself stand out. There’s a lot out there, there’s a lot to choose from, and the way people are watching it — I’m saying things you’ve heard a thousand times, but: It really is changing.
Would you at least agree we might find more shows like The Good Wife or Supergirl on CBS in the years ahead, and fewer shows that are like another NCIS? Do you see a need to differentiate your content and slowly evolve it without suddenly shaking it up?
[ABC chief] Paul Lee said something in his [TV Critics Association] press tour remarks that I disagree with. Most of what he said I agree with 100 percent, and he did a very good job. But he said serialized things are more valuable than procedurals. No, serialized shows are more valuable than they use to be. Scandal still is very valuable, more valuable than before. I’ll take an NCIS over that any day, in terms of absolute viability in the world. Look, the one thing that really hasn’t changed over 20 years is our mix of shows. People always say about CBS, “Too many procedurals, too many procedurals!” During that whole time, we’ve had a lot of comedies, we’ve had our stable of reality shows. I don’t think The Good Wife was a big departure for CBS. I do not see, necessarily, the kind of shows we’re doing changing drastically over time. Code Black is another version of ER. And the reason I like Code Black? I think it’s the best medical show since ER.
You’re still proud of being a broadcaster. You still like reaching a mass audience.
I still do. But, by the way, I love being in the premium-cable world. And I love being in the syndication world. I love doing daytime. I love doing news. I mean, look: We’re a content machine. And what’s great about being here 20 years, I’ve gotten to be involved with some of the greatest things that ever happened in news and sports and cable and broadcasting. I’m a programmer. I like content.
There’s been a ton of talk of late about how there’s too much original content being produced by television across all forms. Are we on the edge of a content bubble? Is there simply going to be a shakeout, where every network can’t afford to have 15 to 18 shows, and something bursts? Will some players just disappear?
Oh, there’s no question. I believe there are, honestly, a lot of places that are getting into original programming, and I don’t know how they’re going to be able to afford to do it. Netflix has one model — but they have 65 million subs. Some of these smaller places aren’t going to be able to afford to do [programming]. There are too many places doing original content. I don’t know how people are going to find them. There are cable channels nobody’s heard of. And the skinny bundleA dramatically slimmed-down package of broadcast and cable networks offered to consumers at a lower price. It’s a compromise between the current system (you pay for a lot of channels you never watch) and à la carte (you pay only for the networks you want).clearly is something that’s beginning to happen. We are a company that is not against that because we have two major brands — CBS and Showtime — and in every skinny bundle, they will both be part of it in one way, shape, or form. [But] basic cable is challenged now, and you’ll find that with certain online sites as well … [it] may not be sustainable to spend that kind of money without the return.
The theory has been: Spend more money on content …
… and if you produce a lot of original content, you will get more in [subscriber] fees. What’s working against that is the smaller bundles that will become very prevalent. Somebody who may want to produce [more] hours of original content, their subscriber fees won’t be going up. Suddenly, their sub fees may be going down. There’s no way some of these services can support, financially, doing what they’re doing. When you see how much content is out there, there’s a fear that there’s going to be too much, and that it’s going to be watered down. Having said that, it’s a pretty great time in the content business for television, qualitatively.
What about the affiliate model of network TVThe way broadcast television has been delivered for decades, i.e., through local TV stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, or the CW., or even the linear model of “channels” — do they still make sense? You’ve gone direct to the consumer with CBS All Access. Do you think the idea of network-owned and -affiliated stations is going away?
I don’t. Obviously, there is a shift going on. But we’re doing our All Access service in conjunction with our affiliates. The system is evolving, and the networks are working hand-in-hand with our affiliates. There’s been a great deal of consolidation, so you’re dealing with like six or seven affiliate groups covering 80 percent of your affiliate body. These are the large groups who now have a great deal of clout. The local stations are really important in the communities and for the government. So I don’t see that going away. They’re still important as a promotional vehicle to us. Local news remains very important.
Late night is on everyone’s minds right now. My colleague Gabriel Sherman reported that Brian Williams pitched himself for Letterman’s gig before you hired Stephen Colbert. Can you tell me anything about that, and whether you considered it even for a minute?
I’m not going to discuss it.
Was it true?
Let’s move on, then! Not everyone will agree, but it does seems like we’re headed for new period of innovation and excitement in late night.
Absolutely. Look, you had Johnny Carson, and then you had David Letterman, as far as I’m concerned. Now it’s a different era. It’s a brand-new ball game. You have a bunch of guys who I consider to be terrific. I really do. I like Jimmy Fallon. I like Jimmy Kimmel. I like Conan O’Brien. I love Stephen Colbert. And guess what? They offer something very different. I also am over the moon with what James Corden’s doing. He’s doing a fabulous job. I’m so pleased it got up to speed so quickly. [CBS marketing chief] George Schweitzer just showed me 30 promos for Colbert, and I love them. They were all great. So we’re looking forward to September 8 with great excitement.
Are late-night ratings strong enough to support so many shows, and so many expensive shows? Do you monetize them in other ways now?
We do. These shows are packed with clips all over YouTube that we get paid for. So there is a brand-new, major source of revenue, which is online, and you see that with Fallon. Corden is profitable, and Colbert will be profitable. The numbers from the upfront presentationAn annual event during which networks unveil their new programming to advertisers.are up considerably with both of them because they both skew younger than was there before.
Is the revenue from YouTube and online streams really that significant?
It depends on what you call significant, but for late night, yes, it is. And it’s growing.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about how big media companies, and the TV business in general, is being changed by so-called “cord-cuttersConsumers who cancel their cable/satellite subscriptions and get TV through the internet (legally or illegally).” and “cord-neversYoung consumers who’ve never paid to get TV through a cable or satellite provider. .” Wall Street punished a lot of media stocks [in August] because of fears about declines in ad and subscription revenues. Do you think these fears are overhyped, or is the threat real?
Look, there’s a reason we launched our over-the-top services. There’s also a reason why we are ready for the small bundle, and why we think it’s a good thing for us. We have been underpaid for years and years and years at CBS for what we do. Now, if a small bundle [becomes more common], the whole world is turned upside down. It’s, “He who has the most viewers wins, and gets paid more.” The days of the 200-channel universe are beginning to change. You have to be ready for your offerings to be streamed. It may be more difficult, as the small bundle becomes prevalent, to hold on to these [subscriber counts]. It sort of points out the weakness in some of these channels. The flip side is, it points out the value of the big, broad networks. Ultimately, it’ll be a good thing for us. For years, we were saying that in an ideal world, you could check off the ten channels you wanted. That’s what the skinny bundle is going to be.
You’re not endorsing any effort by Washington to hurry along these skinny bundles by mandating à la carte, though, are you? You would not be in favor of that, right?
Washington should stay the heck out of our way. They have no place in these discussions. The key is what does the consumer want to watch, and what’s the level at which they want to pay.
We live in a world where all of your cable brethren have shows on at 10 p.m. that are able to be a lot more adult in terms of language and content. You’re still an advertiser-driven network, so you’re not going to start putting on anything close to what’s on Showtime. But why can’t somebody on Code Black say the S-word? Doesn’t it make sense for there to be a rethinking of the FCC regulations on content?
You know, it’s not the FCC. It’s because of the advertising [community]. The advertiser is our main judge and jury. We do use certain words in certain shows that push the boundaries. Chuck Lorre has double entendres all over the place. [But] if we have a show that uses the S-word, there are advertisers who will pull out, who will say, “I don’t want to be in that show.” Now, can you replace them with other advertisers? Some of the time you can. But it’s not, “Oh, I have this huge fear of a FCC fine.” We’re obviously paying attention to that. But the FCC is already getting to a place where they’re saying, “Well, the network is an equivalent of a cable channel. There isn’t that much different between FX and CBS in terms of content.”
They’re starting to understand. They’re still trying to protect the public at large regarding content. But we are guided by advertising.
But if the producers of The Good Wife came to you and said they want to use a few four-letter words, you couldn’t do that without the FCC really getting mad.
That’s true. It is a concern. But as I said, the FCC is starting to realize that a 10 o’clock show on CBS, or a 10 o’clock show on a basic-cable network like USA and TNT, is sort of the same thing now. They’re both 90 percent [distributed through] satellite and cable.
I have to ask about the NFL. You obviously love having the Thursday Night Football franchise. Do you think you’ll be able to make the deal a long-term one, rather than year-to-year?
We don’t know. It’s being discussed.
Let’s talk about CBS News. You’re still No. 3 with Evening News and on weekday mornings. But all of your shows are pretty well-done, and still seem like news shows. Is it more important to you that your news shows maintain a certain level of seriousness, even if it means not doing as well competitively?
News is extremely important to me, and to CBS, both now and as a legacy proposition. Does the news division make a profit? Yes. Is it a large profit? No. I really am extraordinarily proud, which I haven’t always been able to say, of every single show that our news division puts on, from the CBS Evening News to the morning show to Sunday Morning to Face the Nation to 60 Minutes. I am extremely proud, qualitatively, that we are putting on as good of a product as there is anywhere. And I stand by that. Do some of the other morning shows make more money and have higher ratings than we do? Yes. Do they offer what we do? Absolutely not.
We’re doing this interview because this summer marks your 20th year at CBS. What do you remember about coming in to work at CBS headquarters, at Television City, that first day in 1995?
I’d been in that office hundreds of times. [Warner Bros. TV] had a lot of business with CBS, so I knew the building inside and out. I had pitched and been involved with so many important shows for them, you know — Dallas, Knots Landing. So I knew the building really, really well. I remember having a great deal of consternation. I had sat through an upfront presentation that May in New York City where I knew that I was going to be taking over the schedule while I was sitting in the audience. If you recall, there were 12 brand-new series going on the air, and that was the year CBS decided to firebomb the 18-to-49 demo. By that I mean go from being the network of Knots Landing and Dallas and Dr. Quinn and Murder, She Wrote to suddenly, overnight, becoming 18-to-49. It’s what’s not fondly remembered as the Central Park West era, where the strategy was way too drastic, way too severe. We’re going to get 18-year-olds to watch CBS overnight?
So, I sort of knew when I took over that the company was going to face a disaster. I’m coming to what I know has not only been a failing network before, but is probably heading into an even worse time. Now, of those 12 series, 11 of them were canceled within the first year — and one returned that got canceled at midseason the next year. It really was a total rebuild. I knew that I was going to have to make major [staff] changes. That’s exciting, but also, it’s not fun getting rid of people. It’s not fun trying to change a whole culture. By the same token, I was very excited. This [was] an opportunity to really rebuild something.
Was the legacy of CBS as the Tiffany NetworkA nickname for CBS, coined during the network’s earlier days as a reference to its then-ritzy programming.on your mind when you took over?
No question about it. I had not been officially offered this job at other networks, but I had been inquired about at various points in time. And for some reason or other, I wasn’t as interested. There was something absolutely special about CBS — the history of this place. To me, CBS has been the broadcast network of all time. That goes back to the days of Mr. [William S.] PaleyThe founder of the modern CBS Television Network.and, certainly, Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball, and people like that. The history of this place was just phenomenal. I was thinking about that legacy. To this day, my office in Black Rock is William Paley’s office. And I still think every day I go into that office that this is really cool. History and legacy mean a lot to me.
You even managed to get along with David Letterman, at least eventually.
You’re right: It was prickly at first. He was brought over by [former CBS chief] Howard Stringer, and for the first couple of years, it was a little bit bumpy with Dave. At NBC, he saw management [as] the bad guy. I never really took it personally. I said, “Look, Dave is a brilliant talent, and this is how he operates, and that’s fine.” I learned to keep my distance while letting him know that I was involved and concerned. And then that evolved over time, too. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, because that’s not the case. But we were friends. It was mutual respect. And I can’t tell you how many times Dave said to me, “Gee, I’m sorry for those first years.” It developed into a great relationship. I felt very honored and lucky to work with one of the great people of television, and that extends to other talent. I love good actors. I love good writers. I respect them.
What’s the job of a network chief when it comes to dealing with talent?
Our job is to create an environment where they do their best work. Be an editor when you can be, but be a helpful editor. I think most of the people I work with got that — that I really wanted what was best for them. Yes, I can be tough at times when I want something. But I think people know that I’m pretty fair.
Is that also your philosophy when managing your CBS employees? There’s been remarkably little turnover among your senior executive staff over the past two decades.
I want to create a great environment where people really love working here. I treat people with respect, and we pay them well. I think they realize it’s a pretty good place to be. Anybody who’s driving to work and half-thinking about the politics of the place, be it internally or from above — that’s 50 percent of the time they’re not thinking about doing their job. So we have removed that. And if anybody threatens that, they’re not here.
Two decades is a long time to be at any job, especially in the TV business these days. I’m curious as to how you’ve changed as a person. You were already a fairly important TV guy back in 1995. Everybody in Hollywood knew Leslie Moonves. But now you’re a full-fledged media mogul. You sometimes have tabloids and TMZ follow you and your wife, Julie ChenCo-host of The Talk, host of Big Brother, and, since 2004, Moonves’s wife.. You also have Wall Street analysts who are constantly scrutinizing every little step you take.
There’s no question that I feel like personally I’ve grown as an executive. I like to say I got my MBA on the job. I learned a lot about the inner workings of the business, greatly helped by some of the people I have hired. Yes, my position in the world is definitely different than it was 20 years ago. From a public-perception situation, running a No. 1 network, you’re in the eye of the storm more than a supplier. You move over the network and you become a public figure. The fact that we did so well also sort of put me in the limelight.
And yet you’re still involved on a micro level with a lot of decisions. I’ve heard you still play a role in signing off on the cast for Big Brother …
By the way, this wasn’t a great year for casting on Big Brother.
Early on, the cast seemed pretty promising!
I agree. Usually you have one or two disappointments. I think we had five or six disappointments. Another discussion.
Do you ever think, though, as you get older and take on more responsibilities, that maybe you’re not as close to the Zeitgeist as you once were? You have all of those things and challenges and responsibilities. Does that make it harder to stay in touch with what viewers want?
It’s something I absolutely think about it. Do I feel like I’m not in touch with the Zeitgeist? Not really. Because I’m constantly paying attention to what is working everywhere. I watch virtually every movie that comes out. I watch the episodes of shows.
And my job is pretty damn diverse. I’m still pretty actively involved in the Pacquiao versus Mayweather fight. I’m still very involved with the NFL, and what’s happening with our Thursday Night Football schedule. Look, CBS is the old-fashioned network. It was when I got here, and it’ll be here when I leave — even if we win [adults] 18–49. Put it this way: I’m not the first line of defense anymore. In other words, I’m not the one getting pitches. It is somewhat removed. I’m aware of what we buy only when it becomes a little bit more real than before. It has been a learning experience to try to be a better executive from 30,000 feet than I was before.
You’ve done a lot of big deals over the last two decades. What’s been the most difficult negotiation?
That’s a tough one. Frankly, they’ve all been interesting, from Everybody Loves Raymond to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. The David Letterman negotiation, where [then–ABC chief] Lloyd Braun showed up to his doorstep with a cake baked by his 12-year-old daughter, thinking that would work with David Letterman. We really thought it was 50-50 that we could lose David Letterman. That gave me a great deal of angst. The renewals of the NFL deals were very tense. The NCAA basketball deal. Those were big ones, because those were multi-year deals involving billions of dollars. But the talent negotiations, the difficulty with people holding out, has always been interesting. The second-year negotiation with Mark Burnett on Survivor. We had a business-affairs executive who shall remain nameless who didn’t have a provision that we owned the show in perpetuity. So after it became a huge success, we had to renegotiate the deal. That wasn’t fun.
What’s been the low point of your tenure?
The first 18 months were horrible. It really was. I left a phenomenal job. At Warner Bros., we liked winning. We were winning. People enjoyed working hard. They took a great deal of pride in being the No. 1 studio, on having the No. 1 drama, and the No. 1 comedy. It was a joyous place with terrific people. Coming to CBS … it was quite a transition. If you’ve inherited a football team, and they were in last place last year, and you take over the team a week before the season begins — they’re your players. It’s still your team. Even though it wasn’t the team that you selected, you’re still the captain of the team, and it still hurts. So it was, “Am I ever going to get this right? How am I going to be able to figure out how to rebuild this place?” So that was a low point. But I must say: The number of low points has really been rather minimal. Thousands of good days compared to some bad days. It was exciting then. It remains exciting now. Brandon TartikoffThe late head of NBC Entertainment; credited with turning around the network’s fortunes in the early 1980s. His autobiography was titled The Last Great Ride.called his book The Last Great Ride. I would beg to differ with him. My ride was after his, and just as great.