Here’s what you need to know about Leslie Moonves: He’s the president and CEO of an entertainment company that stirred controversy and grabbed headlines this summer when a reality show whose goal is total transparency achieved that goal by exposing the transparent terribleness of its contestants. Yet, when Moonves was asked by a member of the Television Critics Association about the conversations these Big Brother developments prompted between the CBS boss and wife Julie Chen—who happens to host Big Brother—he cannily responded “I’m not going to tell you what goes on in my home.” Takeaway: It’s unlikely that the 16th U.S. cycle of Big Brother will be set in the Moonves household.
There’s a big difference between questions a TV executive won’t answer and a questions an exec can’t answer, and that was the toughest hurdle for reporters and critics approaching today’s session with Moonves. He’s not as involved in the day-to-day business of running his company’s flagship network as his colleague Nina Tassler—unfortunately, the president of CBS Entertainment was called away from Los Angeles at the last minute, necessitating a visit from Uncle Les. So the Q&A session ended up as one painted in broad strokes, with lots of talk about big-picture moves and theoreticals involving international sales and getting more involved in the streaming-video game. Any NCIS fans who, in the last two days, took to spamming members of the TCA in search of the truth about Cote De Pablo’s pending departure from the show walked away from their Twitter feeds sorely disappointed: As far as Moonves could say, De Pablo was offered “a lot of money,” and then she was offered “even more money,” but she didn’t stay. Case closed.
Yet what Moonves’ time with the TCA lacked in specificity and hands-on dealings with the network’s current slate, it made up for in the fact that the exec session happened at all. At the risk of navel-gazing: Recent press tours have been marked by the impression that the networks no longer need events like these. This summer, NBC Universal scaled its press tour presence down from two days to a single marathon run through its fall schedule, with no involvement from the conglomerate’s cable arms. Fox kept its schedule of panels under wraps until press tour was already underway. When Tassler, who’s out of town due to the death of a friend, canceled her appearance, CBS could’ve just cut the exec session and ended its first day with the TCA 30 minutes earlier. Instead, it flew in Moonves, who could at least speak with authority about the renewal of Under The Dome, scheduling limited-run series like Hostages, and whether or not every episode of The Crazy Ones will be a shining beacon of product integration. The answers bore a distinct lack of dirt under fingernails, but they were answers—and that counts for something.
That’s additionally notable because CBS is in a position where it’s not obligated to provide these kinds of answers. Its programming remains frustratingly middle-of-the-road—and its fall 2013 pilots do nothing to alter that course—but it’s the last true broadcaster among the major networks. And that status freed Moonves up from taking the kind of potshots NBC brass took at their cable counterparts this past weekend; “It’s hard to put The Good Wife up against Game Of Thrones,” he said in references to those remarks. That’s easier for him to say, seeing as his job also puts him in charge of Showtime—so he’s actually putting Homeland up against Game Of Thrones. Yet for all of the swagger and monolithic stats that are trotted out during CBS’ time in front the TCA, the network remains a fascinating study of old-media survival in a new media world.
That could all be undone by a few more repeats of the falls of 2012 and ’13, though. Of the new shows it put in primetime this time last year, only Elementary lived to see a full season and a renewal. Partners and Made In Jersey burned out quickly; Vegas withered in spite of lead-ins from the complete NCIS bench. The network has franchise players, but those players are getting old—its youngest drama hits, NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife, are entering their fifth seasons. The Big Bang Theory proved this past year that ratings growth and creative inspiration aren’t totally unknown prospects to an aging show, but Moonves, Tassler, and company need to find shows with more promise than The Crazy Ones or Hostages to keep the CBS bubble from bursting. And if the network wants to chase the cable dragon with shortened seasons, it’ll soon find out you can’t place an entire TV calendar under the dome.
You can, however, place multiple countries under the dome, which looks to be CBS’ next big play. It’s yet to be seen how this will effect programming choices, but if the network has played so broadly to a national audience, it stands to reason that it’ll have to go even broader to play to an international one. (Or maybe it’ll have to take into account perspectives that, gasp, aren’t as white, male, or straight as those of its fall ’13 comedies.) Should the first of those paths be the one a more-globally-minded CBS pursues, I’m not eager to sit down and watch any of the pilots it produces—but I am eager to hear either Moonves or Tassler explain why the strategy is working. But I don’t expect to hear why it’s working within the confines of their families’ living rooms.