Upfront Notebook: Embattled Moonves Gets Standing Ovation

CBS CEO Les Moonves, in a battle for control over his company, got a standing ovation from the audience at Carnegie Hall during the network’s upfront presentation on Thursday.

CBS also defended network advertising at a time many of its competitors are focusing on how it needs to be changed.

CBS is in court with National Amusements, Sumner and Shari Redstone’s company, which owns controlling interests in both CBS and Viacom. National Amusements wants them combined, but Moonves has resisted, seeking better terms for CBS and independence from Redstones. Losing could mean the end of the Moonves era at the network.

Moonves skipped his annual upfront breakfast with the press to avoid questions about the Redstone imbroglio. And when he stepped on stage, the ovation brought an emotional reaction from Moonves and his top executives, sources close to the situation said. (On Monday, NBCUniversal ad sales head Linda Yaccarino had remarked how rare standing ovations were at upfronts.)

Moonves opened with a joke about the situation, asking the crowed “So, how’s your week been?”

He then launched into a discussion of how CBS, and broadcasters overall, have survived numerous challenges over the years.

“Think how many times have you’ve heard that this great, vital, powerful medium is a thing of the past, going to be replaced by everything from satellite dishes to your family toaster,” Moonves said. “But broadcasting has responded to every single challenge. From the VCR to the DVR to OTT, every supposed threat has turned out to represent a major opportunity.”

Moonves went on to call the broadcast network the crown jewel of the CBS Corporation and the pillar on which its booming production, digital and international businesses have been built.

“The record clearly shows that at CBS we love winning. We know lasting success is not only about winning now but preparing ourselves to win in the future. That’s been the driving force for everyone at this beautiful company and at the CBS Television Network for a very, very long time,” he said.

Late Show host Stephen Colbert managed to slip a few jokes about CBS’s boardroom intrigue into his upfront monologue.

“Of course, this year, CBS has the most exciting legal dramas. Also some great TV shows,” he said.

And noting that CBS was angling to reduce National Amusement’s stake in CBS by issuing new shares, Colbert said “I look forward to all of you joining us for the after party over at the Plaza. There’s an open bar. We can have a few drinks. I promise you the cocktails will not be diluted.”

He also referred to the ‘big fight going on right now. . . Everyone’s talking about it. It’s the elephant in the room. I’m sure they don’t want me talking about it right here on the staged. But what the hell. You know what side I’m on.” Turned out he was talking about the internet debate between Yanni and Laurel.

Jo Ann Ross, CBS’s president and chief revenue officer, also stepped up to defend TV advertising in a week where many competitors are talking about how they’re meeting consumer needs by reducing advertising on their networks.

Ross, who was introduced in a video with the cast of Young Sheldon in which a young Jo Ann was praised for her ability to raise enough at a bake sale to pay for a pool and fill it with money, said CBS was unapologetic about the power of advertising.

“Unlike those that are focused on commercial loads, we do not believe that advertising is ruining the television business,” she said, drawing applause from the audience.

Many of those in the audience were also at the Turner upfront earlier in the day, where Turner president of ad sales Donna Speciale, one of the leaders in trying to reshape TV advertising, talked about TV’s role in a larger video ecosystem.

“Our measure of success is no longer year-over-ear TV ratings,” she told advertisers. “Today it’s driven by viewing consumption on all platforms. When you buy on TV you are only getting a fraction of our audience. When we transact on partial viewing we all lose.”

Speciale talked about how Turner was making data-driven audience buying easier and how Turner had already reduced commercial loads on networks including TNT, TBS and truTV, with CNN being next to shed spots.

To be fair, with research guru David Poltrack leading the way, CBS has long talked about data and the power of TV advertising.

And at the CBS upfront Ross also noted CBS’s over-the-top networks were generating exclusive first-party data. “You knew you weren’t getting out of here without a data pitch,” she said.

Ross also introduced CBS DNA, the company’s new data enabled TV product.

“DNA will use data to better understand our audience, to activate your campaigns and to provide analytics and attribution you seek,” she said. “Whether you buy on mass reach demos, an optimized target, or one-to-one addressability, CBS has the solution and we guarantee it.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.