“Now there are literally thousands of opportunities to watch different content, but at its core, it’s all about good storytelling. News, sports, entertainment of any kind — tell me a story.”
Leslie Moonves, chairman and chief executive officer of CBS Corporation; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, September 27, 2017.
On growing up in New York
I like to think of myself as a composite of my mother and my father. My mother was very into the arts, and she used to take me to see Broadway plays all the time. The first play I saw was Peter Pan with Mary Martin, and then Bye Bye Birdie and Damn Yankees. And my father was into sports and very competitive. I couldn’t wait to get home from school and play a variety of sports. So I think both ends of my parents have sort of made me who I am today and helped me succeed in what I’m doing. I appreciate culture, and at the same time I’m fiercely competitive, which you sort of have to be in this business.
My father owned three gas stations in New York. He worked very hard, 16-hour days, six days a week. And it made me realize I didn’t want to be working with my hands growing up. My mother went back to school when she was 40 and became a psychiatric nurse, which she did for the rest of her life. We lived about 30 miles outside of New York City, but we’d go in quite often, and I was able to enjoy what’s great about New York.
“So here you are in a third-floor walkup, struggling and tending bar and going to acting school. It was one of the greatest periods of my life.”
Somewhere around the middle of my freshman year as premed at Bucknell [University], when I was taking organic chemistry, I said, “This is not for me.” I hate the sciences; I’m much more geared toward the arts and literature and history, so I became involved in the theater. With some advice from a very good professor (Harvey Powers), I went to an acting school in New York City called the Neighborhood Playhouse. It was a phenomenal experience. I studied with one of the greatest acting teachers in history, a guy named Sanford Meisner, and on the first day of school he said, “How many of you studied acting at college?” And a bunch of people raised their hands. He said, “Consider that the worst four years of training you possibly could have had. Forget everything you learned.”
New York is a city that hits you in the face when you walk out the door — and you better be ready for it. So here you are in a third-floor walkup, struggling and tending bar and going to acting school. It was one of the greatest periods of my life.
A very close friend of mine was a successful television actor named Gregory Harrison. He had a little production company that I became part of. Our play The Hasty Heart was one of the great success stories in L.A. theater, and it comes out of somebody else’s tragedy, which is a lesson. So we produced The Hasty Heart in a theater that held 99 seats, a tiny theater in Hollywood. The guy who ran the Ahmanson Theatre, which is the largest theater in L.A., comes to see our play on a Sunday afternoon. The night before, Natalie Wood had drowned while on a boat. Natalie Wood is due to do the next play at the Ahmanson. She’s supposed to go into rehearsal three weeks later. Obviously, that play is not going to happen, so he took our little production, and we moved from 99 seats to a 3,000-seat theater.
I think virtually every successful endeavor is a team sport, whether it is a sport or whether it’s a company or whether it’s in the arts. Theater is probably the most coordinated because everybody’s role is intertwined; you see them every day. It’s a community. In a television show or a movie, people work one day, and they may not even see the rest of the cast ever.
On becoming a TV executive
Theater is a director’s and a writer’s and an actor’s medium. And since I wasn’t going to be doing any of that, I looked to TV, which was beginning to explode. I got a job working as a low-level television executive at a small production company over at Columbia Pictures Television. I was there for two years, went to Fox for two years, then went to Lorimar, which was bought by Warner Bros., where I became president of Warner Bros. Television.
Friends and ER were definitely career changers. It was very unusual for one network, one studio, to have the No. 1 comedy and the No. 1 drama, all brand-new, all on one night of the week. That was sort of the reason I got hired at CBS, because I was considered one of the people that helped propel NBC to first place. So CBS, when I joined in 1995, was by far in last place. I was competing against the shows that I had put on the air a few years earlier, so that was very interesting.
Over the arc of my career, my most satisfying achievement was turning around CBS. I’m proud of the content that we have put on, the shows that have been number one. I’m proud of the changes in our news department, CBS This Morning, and how great that turned out. I also am really proud of where we’ve come technologically speaking. We have streaming services, and I have a bunch of 20-somethings at CBS Interactive in San Francisco who are on top of these things and keep me posted. There are all sorts of different models. Netflix has a different model, and Amazon has a different model, and Apple is now getting into the content business. We are all partners on one hand and competitors on the other, and that’s what the game is.
A couple of years ago, there was a columnist at the New York Times who said, “Isn’t it ironic that CBS, the most traditional of media companies, is one of the companies leading the way in new technology?” That made me really happy. It still comes down to the content, but now we’re doing it differently, we’re putting it out there differently, and I’m still having fun doing what I’m doing.
“At its core, it’s all about good storytelling.”
What gives me the most joy is being involved with content and the creative process. When you hear a good idea from someone who’s passionate, that’s really fun. That’s what gets me the most excited. My acting training certainly helped me to recognize good content, good script, and good performance.
There is so much content now, and it’s so diverse. You can target a more specific audience than you used to. Remember, there used to be four networks. That was it. Now there are literally thousands of opportunities to watch different content, but at its core, it’s all about good storytelling. News, sports, entertainment of any kind — tell me a story. Whether it’s a two-hour story or a 10-minute story, tell me a story.
Broadcast TV in America is still the big tent. We get 20 million people a week watching NCIS or The Big Bang Theory or This Is Us on NBC. And the fact that you could get a hundred million people collectively watching the Super Bowl at the same time — it is still a shared experience. And yes, streaming is becoming more important, and digital channels are becoming more important, and people are watching their shows differently, but broadcast is still an essential part of American culture because it is a collective experience.
And people want to participate more, so part of what we’re dealing with now in television is social media. To keep the conversation going is really important. People want to communicate as they’re watching their favorite episode, and that becomes an important part of our dialogue with our audience. Unlike film, although that line’s disappearing, you’re inviting TV stars into your home, so you want them to be your friend.
On reality TV and late night
Survivor initially appeared to be a risk. So there was a young executive on my staff that I wouldn’t normally see, except in staff meetings, who asked to see me, and he came in, and he pitched me this show he’d heard about. And my first reaction was, That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard, certainly for CBS. “That sounds like a bad cable show.” And this guy kept bugging me. Then he finally says, “Do me a favor. Please meet this guy Mark Burnett.” So he came in, and Mark Burnett was the best pitcher that I’ve ever seen, and by that I mean, when we’re being pitched a TV show, you have to try to get me to imagine exactly what it’s going to be. That’s what your words do. That’s what your script does. So Mark Burnett walked me through Survivor. It started in 2000. It’s been on for 17 years.
Reality has become a big part of our business. I think people want to see themselves, whether it’s fictional or real. When we cast reality TV, these people are very relatable. The first year of Survivor, the guy who won was gay. He was paired with this 70-year-old military guy who hated homosexuality. Sure enough, they became friends, and it was a life lesson.
Late-night talk shows are where America goes at the end of the day to wrap up. I think the success of Colbert is because of how America is feeling. In a country that’s literally split down the middle, that’s who people want to see comment on what is happening nationally. We need the dialogue, and it is a relief to be able to laugh. So it’s a good time for late night.
On 60 Minutes and All in the Family
60 Minutes was the most venerable news program in history. Still on the air, still a Top 15 show. When 60 Minutes was created 50 years ago, Don Hewitt said, “Okay, in 14 minutes, tell me a story.” That’s why 60 Minutes has succeeded, because they get into pretty heavy topics, but it’s about a story.
Norman Lear is sharp as a tack and one of the greats. All in the Family changed American culture for the best. And that’s TV at its best, when you can really change the dialogue about something through entertainment.