By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

A former actor, CBS President and Chief Executive Les Moonves has taken center stage in the dramatic turnaround at the network. By the end of last season, CBS was the No. 1 network in terms of total viewership, something few observers thought possible only a few years ago.

The turnaround helped make CBS an attractive candidate for a takeover, leading to Viacom Inc.'s agreement to buy the company in a $37 billion stock swap, the biggest media marriage in history.

When the smoke finally settled, Moonves was still standing as CBS's top executive on both coasts, still reporting to Mel Karmazin, who will become president and chief operating officer of Viacom Inc. Moonves, 49, is in charge of all entertainment programming, sales, marketing for the network. CBS News, CBS Sports and CBS-owned TV stations also report to him.

Question: How does Viacom's purchase of CBS Corp. affect West Coast operations with respect to Paramount Pictures' TV division?

Answer: It doesn't change anything. It will still be church and state. Paramount will still produce shows for everybody, and we are still going to produce shows for everybody. It will mean, hopefully, we will have a special relationship with each other, just like Twentieth Television has to Fox. They sell to them, but they also sell to us and everybody else in town.

Q: So the model won't be like Disney/ABC, which is integrating its network and production operations?

A: Clearly, it will not be that of Disney. Our in-house production unit will remain separate and ongoing.

Q: Do you see any firings as the two companies reduce redundancies?

A: No. There are no plans for that now. The reason this is such a terrific fit is that there are very few redundancies between the companies. Our strengths are very different. There are certain corporate expenses and overhead items that might be redundant, but that's all.

Q: What is the benefit of being combined with a studio?

A: Obviously, you have a production company, a movie arm. There are certain synergies you may have. Through that, you have the ability to attract talent and get first-run movies at a better price.

Q: What is the advantage of keeping UPN?

A: That's something I can't comment on. I am not familiar with it. UPN is not on my radar.

Question: Historically, why is there a bicoastal structure to network television?

Answer: The networks started out purely as a New York-based operation with Bill Paley (at CBS), Robert Sarnoff (at NBC) and Leonard Goldenson (at ABC). But as production increased on the West Coast, the shift began. As recently as 25 years ago, the heads of entertainment divisions were based in New York City. We are in a building that wasn't an office facility, per se, but a production facility, except for our offices on the third floor. This building was to augment Black Rock (CBS headquarters in New York).

Q: Why has there been a shift to the West Coast?

A: As time evolved, it became important to be near the production companies and the production of the shows. Then you had the new factor. The evolution of the Fox network, which was wholly L.A.-based. Then you had Disney buying ABC, once again a wholly L.A.-based company. CBS sort of evolved to it in a gradual way, mostly dealing with personnel and my arrival from the head of the entertainment division to the head of the whole network. At CBS, it was basically the first time that an entertainment executive was the head of this network.

The other thing that has happened at CBS is that our station group is now run from the West Coast. This is because of John Severino. Our head of our international division is also based here.

Q: Is there really any reason to keep this bicoastal division going any longer?

A: I think it is essential that the news division stay in New York City. There is too much that is already there archives, personnel, technical stuff. Even ABC, which is moving everybody out here as quickly as it can, is keeping news in New York.

Q: What about sales?

A: Very hard to do since Madison Avenue is there, and that is where the clients are.

Q: Given the power that you have over news, sports, entertainment, sales, TV stations, all of which report to you and thereby the West Coast why not make Los Angeles the headquarters of CBS?

A: In theory, we could do that, absolutely. We could do what ABC is doing. But we are not going to do that. It is working out quite well with this bicoastal nature. With fax machines, teleconferencing, the fact that John Severino is across town, you can still operate this way. It doesn't make life that much different (being bicoastal). I speak to the head of sales just about every day, the head of sports, the head of news every day, and if they were three floors down it would not make that much difference.

Q: Have you done a cost analysis about moving everything to Los Angeles?

A: No. At one point, when were talking about taking people out of Black Rock, there was some talk about whether it would be economical to move sports to California or to Florida or New Jersey. We looked at that. There were certain economic advantages to moving to Florida, but moving out to California didn't seem to save a whole lot of money. Fox has its sports operation out here and it is very successful. Their NFL pre-game show is done out here and ours is in New York City. I don't think it really matters.

Q: Why not move CBS News to Los Angles? CNN operates out of Atlanta.

A: I highly doubt that we would do this. The news magazines, the "60 Minutes" people are all there. I am not about to ask Mike Wallace to move to the West Coast, come on out to Malibu. There is a tradition and it would be a hard thing to do.

Q: How do you spend your time between the coasts?

A: I am here for two to three weeks per month. But it depends on the week. As a network executive, your life depends on the time of the year. Things change so much. Right now, we are spending a lot of time on getting the early-morning news show together. Maybe I am more news-oriented now. A couple of months ago, I was working on getting Craig Kilborn launched. Months before that, we were working on the fall schedule. I was in New York recently on NFL business. It really varies quite a bit. What is great about this job is the diversity of it. You never get bored.

Q: Typical workday in Los Angeles?

A: A business breakfast. I am in the office by 8 o'clock. I make my New York calls the first hour and a half. Then it is where the ship leads me, wherever the problem is. Meetings follow.

Q: Lunch at your desk?

A: Fifty-fifty. Dinner, four out of five nights at a restaurant with someone who is business-related.

Q: The New York schedule?

A: Breakfast and dinner, you are out with someone. In the office at 8 o'clock, lunch in or out of the office at 1 o'clock.

Q: There is a great deal of concern in the production community that in-house production will be the death of the independent producer. Will it?

A: No. Ultimately, in-house production is important, but the best shows will still get on the air. What is happening now is that, as people are taking ownership, you are finding that the talent is spread out in a different way. In other words, a guy makes a deal with a network as opposed to a studio. The top talent is still producing shows. Ultimately, the best show gets on the air.

Q: You enjoyed great success selling shows at Warner Bros. How has that helped you as a network executive?

A: I have seen why shows work and why shows don't work. I have seen why it is not only the sale, but also the follow-through that makes a hit. I've seen great pilots turn into terrible series. No matter how good your studio is, no matter how good your network is, it all depends on the show runner (the executive in charge of the day-to-day operations of a series).

Q: You were an actor, too. How has that helped you deal with people on the West Coast?

A: I think my acting background has helped me creatively. I know the pitfalls of auditioning for shows. I have been there. It has helped my ability in dealing with creative people.

Q: What about New York? Doesn't acting help your communication skills when dealing with other executives?

A: No question about it. When I am making a presentation at Carnegie Hall of my fall programming, having been an actor doesn't hurt. If you compare me to some of my competitors, I love to go up against them. I have been in front of 1,000 people before.

Q: KCBS-TV Channel 2 in L.A. has been a dud for years. How have its ratings affected the network's overall ratings for news, prime time and late night?

A: There is no question that it has affected them negatively. When you have a weak station in the No. 2 market in the country, it certainly affects all your ratings. Our station group has been behind all our competitors. With John Severino (the new head of KCBS and the CBS-owned station group), it is already starting to change. If we get a stronger station in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, it will certainly help the network. What we have done in the last few years with this weak station group speaks very well for the network.

Q: One of the urban legends about you is that you floated a figure of $12 million per episode for "ER" in the press, and that forced NBC's hand in paying a record $13 million per episode for the drama. True?

A: There is no question that I floated that number. At that number, I would have bought that show. At $13 million, NBC did the right thing. It was break-even and they could not afford to lose it.

Q: What was the economic fallout from the "ER" deal with NBC?

A: A, it made it somewhat more essential to own your own properties so you didn't have a gun put to your head (by an independent producer), and B, it made you realize that you should think ahead and not wait until the last minute to renegotiate a hit show.

Q: Is there any way CBS can halt the so-called runaway production issue?

A: It really has nothing to do with the networks. It has to do with the economics of the production and the unions. Canada made it a lot easier. That is why you go up there. You go to Toronto, Vancouver and see 80 percent of all movies of the week there.

Q: But a producer would say they are doing this because the networks are not giving them a decent licensing fee or are cutting the revenues from syndication.

A: The networks are barely breaking even; we can't do a whole lot better than that.

Q: Is the job fun?

A: Most of the time. The fun is having your hand in so many pies. You can sit down with our NFL guys, programming guys, Dan Rather.

Q: Biggest surprise for you as an executive at CBS?

A: How hard this job is. How much you are aggravated by ratings every single day or your life. It is relentless.

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