While Leslie Moonves ran a great network, he projected little regard for CBS affiliates and even the CBS O&Os. To him, it seems, the affiliates were collection agents for retransmission consent fees who kept too much of the money for themselves. His successor, whomever he or she might be, needs to have a vision for broadcasting that goes beyond being just a bridge to a streaming future and look at affiliates as valuable, inportant partners.
Did you read Linda Bloodworth Thomason’s evisceration of Les Moonves in The Hollywood Reporter? It portrayed Moonves as two-faced, mean-spirited and misogynistic, vividly underscoring The New Yorker reports of sexual misconduct that brought his career to an abrupt end this week. “I am happy to dance on his professional grave,” she says.
I don’t know about all that, but there appears to be enough truth within all the charges and condemnations to more than justify Moonves’ ouster.
Judging him purely as a businessman, by how he ran CBS, however, most investors, advertisers and other media executives would give him high marks.
Rather than milk the legacy businesses and quietly retire, Moonves opted to drive the company into the OTT future — as a program supplier to newcomers like Netflix and as a service provider (CBS All Access, Showtime OTT, CBSN and CBS Sports HQ, with more to come).
When Sumner Redstone split Viacom and CBS apart in 2006, Moonves was thought by all to have gotten the short end. But Moonves turned it all around, transforming CBS into a dynamic 21st century media player while Viacom stumbled.
In a column I wrote after he received a standing ovation from the ad community in May during the CBS upfront presentation, a moment that stands in stark contrast to his public fall, I looked at his record more narrowly, from the perspective of the CBS affiliates and found it somewhat wanting.
Yes, he ran a great network, offering the NFL and personally overseeing a primetime schedule that, if not spectacular, was consistently good. Year after year, CBS could boast of being the most-watched of the hundreds of networks out there. Never mind that the viewership skewed old.
But at the same time, he projected little regard for CBS affiliates and even the CBS O&Os. To him, it seems, the affiliates were collection agents for retransmission consent fees who kept too much of the money for themselves.
He once told investors that his goal was to recapture two of every three retrans dollars from the affiliates. I had little doubt that once he got the two, he would go for three.
This disdain for the affiliates factored into another story this week that was almost lost in the ugly CBS revelations that not only brought down Moonves, but also Jeff Fager of 60 Minutes.
Bloomberg reported that CBS has agreed to provide the Hulu streaming service a national feed of CBS programs in the two dozen markets where Hulu was unable to strike a carriage deal with Sinclair for its local CBS affiliate.
CBS had given Hulu and Sinclair a year and a half to work out their disagreement, and could wait no longer with CBS’s fall show ready to debut, Ray Hopkins, CBS’s head of distribution, told Bloomberg. “The goal is to provide our network to 100% of the country.”
I understand CBS’s need to reach 100% of homes — it is a broadcaster after all — but did it really need to undercut a major affiliate? The Hulu Live TV skinny bundle, which is what we are talking here, serves only 800,000 homes right now and the Sinclair markets account for no more than a tenth of that.
Not having those homes in the CBS universe this fall would have done little financial harm.
And when the programming is at its most compelling — at the beginning of the fall and NFL seasons, say — is precisely when the CBS affiliates have their greatest leverage in negotiations with the MVPDs and skinny bundles. It’s precisely the time when CBS should back off.
But the threat of bypassing affiliates is one of the ways that the networks keep their affiliates in line, and what good is a threat if you don’t demonstrate you are willing to make good on it every once in a while?
In this particular case, I cannot fully blame CBS for its action. The sticking point in Sinclair’s negotiations with Hulu was not money, but Sinclair’s insistence that Hulu also pick up its Tennis Channel.
There is nothing wrong with the Tennis Channel, but it’s just the kind of niche cable network that the skinny bundles try to avoid so they can keep their bundles skinny and subscriber fees low.
I can see how Sinclair’s attempt at block-booking would have annoyed CBS to the point to where felt it had to teach Sinclair a lesson.
Just as it did at Justice and the FCC in trying to win approval of its ill-fated Tribune merger, Sinclair badly overplayed its hand. It wanted too much, and ended up with nothing.
And it has done other broadcasters some harm. It has set a precedent for network bypass. It’s no longer just a threat. It’s now a real thing.
In that May column, I concluded that on the whole CBS affiliates are probably better off with Moonves than without out. Well, as it turns out, they will have to do without him.
For the sake of the affiliates, I hope that the next CEO matches Moonves in primetime prowess, but that he or she also develops a vision for broadcasting that goes beyond being just a bridge to a streaming future and comes to see affiliates as more than just sticky-fingered middlemen.