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A Few Minutes With the Philosopher King

By RD Heldenfels Published: July 21, 2005

One of the annual highlights of the press tour is the news conference with Leslie Moonves, who has run CBS -- and later UPN as well. Moonves is funny and quick and for the most part likes the give-and-take of a duel with reporters, even a room full of them.

He's one of those guys who can stonewall you completely and still make you feel as if you have had an interesting dialogue. But he's also someone who gives you a glimpse of how TV works -- or at least how a major executive's mind works.

This year, Moonves did not take the stage because of another commitment in New York City as one of the top guys at Viacom, CBS's corporate parent -- a situation he regretted.

After flying back for a CBS dinner for reporters and its executives, he said, ''You don't think I was feeling bad, being in New York? It was the first (press conference) I've missed in 10 years.''

But Moonves now oversees far more than CBS.

''Some of the hats (he wears) are more fun than others,'' he told a cluster of reporters who gathered around Moonves as soon as he arrived. ''CBS is still the center of it all for me -- and UPN. This is the most fun. Sitting with a bunch of Wall Street guys is not as much fun, believe it or not, as sitting with you guys.''

But, he said, ''I've got a lot of Wall Street stuff to do. Simon & Schuster is now reporting to me, so I have to read which I hate to do.''

''I'm kidding,'' he added quickly. Moonves later said that reporters had missed the joking aspect of a notorious comment he made about ''Joan of Arcadia'' (see "More 'Joan,' '' below) and that he was going to spell out his jokes from now on.

Back to the serious business: "I met with Simon & Schuster, so I'm learning the publishing business.I've got Showtime. I mean, there's a lot on my plate. The good news is I've got great teammates. But CBS is still where it's at for me.''

So what did he have to say about things at CBS (and UPN)?

On the network's news: ''They are working on a couple of pilot-type of things. The good news about having a show on the air is that you can try things on the air, on a daily basis, that you guys won't even notice. ... It's gonna evolve. The good news is, (Bob) Schieffer has added stability. He's doing a great job. The ratings have stabilized. We're still in last place but no worse than before. And I think there's a real credibility to the news. I think we've gotten our credibility back. ...

''I really don't know what (the news) is going to be like. ... There is progress being made. ... Brian (Williams, at NBC) is doing a terrific job, but this is certainly a year of transition in news. At all three places. God willing, Peter (Jennings, at ABC) gets better and he's back in the chair, but this has been a very, very unusual year.''

On Dan Rather: "He's going to be doing pieces on '60 Minutes,' and other things. He's still a fulltime CBS employee.''

On the chances for science-fiction shows, including one new alien-invasion show each on ABC (''Invasion''), CBS (''Threshold'') and NBC (''Surface''): ''You know the batting average. If you take any three new shows, if one out of three makes it, it's above the average batting average. I'll take 'Threshold' -- although 'Invasion' is very good, too. I haven't seen the other one.''

On networks getting similar ideas at the same time: ''There comes a time when things are out there. They're in the ether, and nobody is copying anyone else. ... Everybody expected 400 'Desperate Housewives' look-alikes (in the coming season). There aren't. There are none. We did one pilot, 'The Commuters,' which was sort of a soap opera. It didn't come together, so it didn't make it on the air. We really put on our best shows, no matter what it was.''

On NBC executive Jeff Zucker, with whom Moonves has traded a lot of public salvos: ''I like him, I respect him. I think he's a very good executive. He's very smart. I'm better at entertainment, he's better at news.'' He followed that last comment with, ''THAT'S A JOKE! THAT'S A JOKE! THAT'S A JOKE!''

On the Emmys, which are not always kind to CBS: ''The Emmy nominations, whether we get them or not, half of them are ridiculous. ... There are nominations we got that we didn't deserve, and there's a lot that we should have gotten that we didn't get. ... There are some jokes every year. You circle some people in categories and say 'They got it?' and 'They didn't?' I won't say where.''

He said more, and bantered and teased along the way. It was a lot of business, and a lot of fun.

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