Even Dave Thinks Les (Moonves) Is More
After doing his bit for the CBS "pledge drive" at Wednesday's upfront, Dave Letterman returned the Carnegie Hall stage to the emcee with a flourish: "The man who is single-handedly saving network TV --Leslie Moonves"
Maybe he is.
Of the Big Four network honchos, the CBS CEO is the only one who still seems to know how to program to mass audiences, even if it is a dwindling mass, and believes in what he is doing. Broadcasting has no greater or more ardent champion.
This TV season, Moonves and CBS were finally rewarded for their single-minded commitment to broadcasting, to gathering the largest possible audiences.
Now, they can say they are not only the most watched network, but also the most watched among the 18-to-49 year-olds that advertisers are willing to pay the most to reach. It's hard to believe it's been more than 20 years since CBS held the 18-49 title.
CBS has done it the old fashioned way, gradually building a primetime schedule that flows from show to show, night to night. While its ancient rivals ABC and NBC always seem to be overhauling their schedules, CBS always seems to be merely tweaking its lineup.
According to Variety, over the past four seasons, CBS has introduced 26 new shows compared to 42 by NBC and 40 by ABC. CBS's total is even one less than that of Fox, which has to fill only two hours a night.
Despite all the hoopla at Carnegie Hall, the presentation was sharply focused on regularly scheduled programming.
CBS programming chief Nina Tassler stressed that, unlike its rivals, CBS wasn't about to disrupt its audiences viewing habits with a lot of "event series" or special entertainment programming. "We don't need place fillers," she said. "We have hit shows."
(This is too bad in a way. I saw an ad for Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella now playing on Broadway, and was reminded that the classic musical had been commissioned by CBS for TV. It first aired in 1957.)
CBS's only concession to fashion was a little time-slot sharing at 10 o'clock on Mondays. Hostages, a new suspense drama, will get the slot in the fall. Intelligence, another new drama about a cyber-detective, takes over in the spring. CBS also decided to hold Mike & Molly until midseason so that its 22 episodes can spin out through May without interruption.
Moonves was also not going to be sucked into using his network's big moment before the advertising industry for a discussion of digital options. "Anyone that spends 20 minutes at the upfront talking about multiplatform doesn't have much to sell, and we do have more to sell," Moonves said.
CBS's disciplined approach to broadcasting carries over to the fundamentals of the medium. Since the dawn of digital, its priority has been to insure that its single main channel has always been of the highest possible technical quality. It has shown little interest in multicasting and mobile DTV -- services of questionable value that can degrade the main signal when jammed into a 6 MHz TV channel.
You'll also note that CBS is now the only one of the Big Four not to have announced a plan for live streaming of its O&Os and affiliates so that they can be received in-market by consumers on smartphones and tablets. ABC, Fox and NBC have opted for the TV everywhere approach, in which they partner with cable operators and receive compensation through a retrans premium.
This not to say that CBS is not interested in live streaming. In fact, it has invested in, and has been experimenting with, Syncbak, a live streaming platform. But if has a cogent live streaming strategy, it isn't sharing it with me or anybody else I have spoken to about it.
Since the launch of TVNewsCheck in 2006, the only time CBS's faith in broadcasting waivered came in 2010 when it failed to step up and retain the rights to the Final Four -- the semi-finals and finals of the NCAA basketball tourney. Instead, it is sharing those rights with Turner. Among other things, TBS will air the championship game in 2016 and each even-numbered year thereafter until the contract expires in 2024.
That deal has gotten worse for broadcasters, by the way. Originally, CBS was supposed to broadcast the semi-final games in addition to the championship games in 2014 and 2015. But a week before the CBS upfront, it was announced that TBS would air the semis in those two years.
CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus called the migration of the two games to cable a "win-win" without explaining how the loss of such attractive programming could possibly be construed as a win for CBS other than in the accounting department.
Then, news broke yesterday that CBS had lost another major sports event -- the U.S. Open tennis tournament. The rights had become too rich for CBS so starting in 2015 you will have to tune to ESPN for the semifinals and finals. With the ratings waning, the loss of the U.S. Open doesn't hurt as much as that of the Final Four. But still, it's been a prestige CBS tradition since 1968.