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Moonves Unrepentant

CBS chief decries current 'scary climate'


A defiant CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, citing a "very, very scary" government regulatory climate, has vowed not pay the FCC's $550,000 Super Bowl fine and not to order changes in the content of programming on the CBS television network.

Moonves, who is also co-president and co-chief operating officer of CBS parent, Viacom, vowed to continue to take risks with live programming and not live by "a five-second buzzer" of program delays. Speaking at a "Future of Television" forum at New York University on Nov. 19, Moonves was emboldened in his defiance by the Veterans Day incident involving the motion picture, "Saving Private Ryan," on ABC.

"The 'Saving Private Ryan' fiasco is about as ludicrous a thing as I've seen in the history of broadcasting," Moonves said. "The fact that thirty percent of the ABC affiliates would not show it...a show about World War II, D-Day, about American heroes...made by arguably the greatest filmmaker in the history of the world...and the FCC didn't have the courage to say (to the affiliates) 'don't worry, you won't be fined.' As a result, thirty percent of the country did not see "Saving Private Ryan" because the FCC, by their silence, said 'you know what, we'll fine you.'

Moonves made his comments only hours before Viacom agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle 16 indecency fines for radio broadcasts leveled earlier by the FCC against Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting radio stations. The bulk of those fines were against the "Opie & Anthony Show" and radio shock jock Howard Stern. Artists from both shows are moving to satellite radio to avoid the FCC.

Moonves made it clear in his speech that he sees a big difference in the type of fines leveled by the FCC on some his company's provocative radio programming-which he said he could not defend-and FCC policy toward television.

The CBS chief made sure his audience knew it's not just the Republican "right wingers" on the FCC attempting to censor program content. "The two Democrats on the FCC are just as bad, if not worse, " he emphasized.

"We have been fined $550,000 for the incident at the Super Bowl. We are not going to pay it. We'll go through the court system, let's put it that way...we will take it as high as we can go," Moonves said.

"They are claiming that we are responsible for what we knew nothing about. Their claim is that CBS knew what was going on (at the Super Bowl) and we should pay the fine," he continued. "A, we didn't know about it, and b, on live television it's the risk we have to take. Everything can't be on a five-second buzzer. That's a mistake."

Describing the FCC's initiative as "horrible," he said "it's literally to the point that people are talking about delays on live news and sports programming, which I think would be a total travesty."

In Viacom's radio settlement following Moonves' speech, the company said in a statement that it would try to "safeguard live broadcasts" by using delay technology, though it was vague in how such technology might be used and whether it applied mainly to live radio broadcasts.

Moonves cited an incident on NBC during a sports interview after the University of Pittsburgh beat Notre Dame in a football game. "A quarterback from Pittsburgh, who was very excited, used a four letter word in a post-game interview," Moonves noted. "It was no big deal. Everybody has heard that word. The kid was excited. He'd beat Notre Dame. It was his dream come true. Yet, NBC is probably going to get fined for it."

Asked by TV Technology if the FCC's indecency campaign will impact future programming on the CBS network, Moonves responded "no" to any self censorship.

"We are telling our people 'look, let's not be stupid, let's not be gratuitous, let's keep our eyes on the ball and be aware of what's out there and going on in the climate,'" he responded. "But we have not asked our people to change their programming content or do different kinds of shows.

"People have asked me 'how has the election changed what you are going to do?' I said 'we don't program for the red states and the blue states.' Ironically, they say that morality is the number one issue of why people voted the way they did. Well, the two highest rated shows are 'CSI,' about murder, and 'Desperate Housewives,' which is about adultery. So I don't know."

Also addressing the conference, David Baldwin, executive vice president of programming at HBO, said pay television services like HBO are also keeping a wary eye on the FCC.

"We're invited guests and that, over the years, has certainly protected us to some degree from the FCC and those that govern commercial broadcasting," said Baldwin. "I think even with those safeguards in place, they are very much going to make some inquiries and make some noise, and I think, create whipping boys.''

"I do see a danger that there seems to be a frenzy right now that, in large part, is not fair. I think it is going to stifle creativity." If the situation worsens, he said, there might be a movement of talent to media outlets without government oversight.

Todd Leavitt, president and COO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, told those attending the media conference "not to minimize this problem. It is extremely, extremely severe."

Calling the "Saving Private Ryan" incident "ludicrous, amazing and unthinkable," Leavitt said the FCC's actions are already having "an unbelievable chilling effect."

On other issues facing network television, Moonves noted that cable has become a force in siphoning audience share and that the broadcast networks are down four percent from last year.

"There's is no question that cable is hurting us," he said. "Ironically, it's not the big guys, but its the little guys who are eating away at us. The point 1s and the point 2s."

However, he noted that to draw the same audience size it takes 350 episodes of "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" to equal one episode of "CSI." It takes 190 "Nip/Tucks" to equal one "CSI." And "Larry King Live," the highest rated program on CNN, wouldn't make the top one hundred on network television.

"I think there's a lot of misconception about how important cable is. But the highest episode of "The Sopranos" is watched by one third of the amount of people who watch 'CSI,'" he said.

He said ancillary television markets are getting much tighter. "Markets are drying up for syndicated sales. Many countries are limiting the number of American shows that can be sold in their countries. After markets are less than they were before."

On TiVo, he said it's here to stay and is something that every broadcaster must be aware of. Right now only four percent of Americans use TiVo, he said, but that number will grow dramatically in coming years.

Though TiVo helps viewers skip commercials, Moonves said the overall amount of TV viewing will rise and there's evidence that people who use TiVo devices are among the more intense of television viewers. "There's an argument that TiVo might, in fact, help us."

That said, he predicted that the networks will redefine their relationship with advertisers. "Because of TiVo and other issues in the marketplace, we are going to have to use more product placement. We can be smart about it, integrate (products) in shows, and the future will be much brighter than just relying on a 30-second commercial spot."

Frank Beacham
Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.