CBS’ Moonves Happy Being No. 1, Especially Sans Hulu

The CBS chief told an amused Paley Center crowd Thursday that he prizes such primetime hits as “C.S.I.” too much to dole them out freely online

CBS CEO Les Moonves was very much the comfortable top dog as he appeared at Thursday's Paley Center for Media’s International Council event, kvelling about his network’s No. 1 rank and making it very clear he had anything but regrets over not joining the competing companies that distribute their content via Hulu.

It’s not the first time Moonves has slighted the online service, which pulls in content from the three networks trailing him via partnerships with Disney, News Corp. and NBCUniversal. But the snark level was notable as interviewer Aryeh Bourkoff, head of investment banking for UBS, asked him about initiatives to buy the service.

"What are they getting and how long are they getting it?” wondered Moonves. “Are they buying two years of programs for $2 billion? I don’t know.”

Amid laughter from the audience, he cut himself off:  "I shouldn’t say more — I’ll get in trouble.”

Moonves cited such primetime hits as “C.S.I.,” “N.C.I.S.” and “The Good Wife” as being proven assets too important to send out for extended periods and thereby possibly be cannibalized rather than standing out as revenue drivers for robust advertising market he’s enjoying: “We protect the family jewels.”

Moonves made it clear he’s more than happy with current deals to release a small percentage of CBS’s content via fairly brief and non-exclusive agreements with Netflix and Amazon. “They all have to fit into the content food chain,” he explained.

Moonves added that CBS keeps tight control over its limited online distribution via its own TV.com.

“And we keep 100 cents of every dollar, not like the Hulu guys [who keep only 70 percent] do,” he said.

Moonves said CBS ad revenue has been largely untouched by the latest stock market turbulence. “It’s nothing like it was in 2007-'08, when it really did hurt.” 

The only palpable “softening," he added, was due to Japanese automakers’ lack of inventory, leading them to pull back on ad buys. He noted that Toyota had promised to “come back bigger” in November and December.  

Despite a current dearth of local political advertising, Moonves smiled broadly in anticipating the upcoming season in national races: “From what’s going on in Washington, we think 2012 is gonna be a phenomenal year. It may not be good for the country, but it’s  gonna be good for CBS. It’s  gonna get pretty ugly out there.”

Moonves closed by reiterating the primacy of content in the CBS universe. “We want to control our content work very closely," he said, and to avoid cannibalizing "bucket No. 1" at all costs.  

"We’re not gonna do it," he said. "We like to say content is forever.”