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Why Les Moonves’ Legacy With CBS’ TV Ratings Will Be So Hard to Top

Moonves’ exit follows one hell of a programming run

When Leslie Moonves arrived at CBS in July 1995, the so-called Tiffany Network was in last place among total viewers. By the 1996-97 season — the first one Moonves would have had a hand in developing from a pilot perspective — CBS and its new president of entertainment had leapfrogged ABC and settled into third.

With some success under his belt, Moonves was understandably promoted to Viacom Inc. co-president and co-COO in 2004. And when CBS split with Viacom in December 2005, the one he went to fared far better.

By the time it was out on its own, CBS was steadily finishing seasons as the No. 1 broadcast network in terms of in total viewers. The broadcast net hasn’t really looked back since — but we have.

CBS has won the last 10 traditional Nielsen TV seasons among total viewers and 15 of the past 16. That’s really impressive, but the industry is pretty used to hearing that statistic — and often in Moonves’ own voice.

We can stretch the study out to encapsulate the entirety of Moonves’ tenure — including the slower days he was brought in to speed up. CBS has won 17 of the last 24 seasons in overall audience averages and two of them among adults 18-49.

During that time period, the Warner Bros. alum developed “Big Bang Theory,” “NCIS,” the “CSI” franchise, “JAG,” “Blue Bloods” and “Young Sheldon,” as well as other hits.

But that was all under Les, and he’s gone. It’s now Joe Ianniello’s job (for the time being, anyway) to keep the momentum going. Can he? The well-respected Ianniello is inheriting a hell of a lot better of a situation than Moonves did.

The 2017-18 season, which would turn out to be Moonves’ final one at the helm of CBS, was a pretty remarkable one — even for Moonves and his own entertainment president Kelly Kahl. CBS squeezed past NBC to win with an average of 9 million primetime viewers to 8.9 million. That tight “W” came in the rare season when NBC had both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

In other words, no one thought CBS would take this one — that is, no one, probably, besides Leslie Moonves.