CBS Chief Bets Reputation on...Ashton?

Leslie Moonves. Chris Farina / Corbis

CBS Corp. Chief executive Leslie Moonves has more than 20,000 people working for him, but right now his fortunes are riding on just one: Ashton Kutcher.

Moonves personally championed Kutcher as a replacement for Charlie Sheen on the network’s biggest hit, Two and a Half Men. Now, as the newly revamped show premieres this week, Moonves will get credit—or blame—for the fate of the network’s comedy crown jewel.

It’s a massive bet, and one that has left many in Hollywood scratching their heads. Even the show’s creator, Chuck Lorre, said recently that Kutcher, the amiable but lightweight actor best known as Demi Moore’s husband, wasn’t his first choice; he wanted someone older. The idea came instead from Moonves and his team.

Settling into an armchair in his massive 35th-floor Manhattan office, Moonves promises patience, saying regardless of how the show performs, he will give it time to find its legs. “No way” would he yank it midseason, he says.

Moonves is throwing his own credibility behind the retooled sitcom. He says the show’s much-hyped premiere commanded a big premium from advertisers; while he won’t give specifics, industry sources say CBS asked for at least $750,000, compared with the $200,000 for a 30-second spot the show brought in last year. But “after that, it will depend purely on the ratings. If it isn’t as successful as people thought, it will be less.” He is quick to add: “I don’t expect it [ratings] to fall off precipitously. I don’t think that’s something that’s in the cards. We’re feeling good about it.”

After Sheen imploded in a burst of drug-fueled episodes in February, it wasn’t clear that the show would survive at all. Various middle-aged actors were bandied about as potential replacements for the 46-year-old Sheen—among them Hugh Grant, Matt Dillon, and Rob Lowe. Ultimately, Moonves and CBS decided on the 33-year-old Kutcher, whose social-networking prowess—he has more than 7 million Twitter followers—made him appealing. His reported $700,000 per episode, according to TV Guide’s latest salary rankings, makes him the highest-paid sitcom star, though he’ll earn less than the $1.2 million an episode that Sheen pulled in.

It’s a lot of pressure on Kutcher, whose last sitcom, Fox’s That 70’s Show, ended in 2006. Moonves is feeling the heat at least as much: the research firm Kantar Media estimates the show brought in $155 million in advertising revenue last year, and another $97 million through July of this year. CBS, the No. 1–rated network, says the series has only a negligible impact on earnings, since Warner Bros. owns it, rather than CBS. But Two and a Half Men has also helped power the ratings of the rest of the schedule around it.

When I ask what keeps him up at night, Moonves says, “I think about where is this industry going, where is our content going ... I think about the network schedule. The day begins thinking about what’s going wrong, not about the 98 percent that’s going right.”

He is supervising an overhaul of CBS News, which saw the departure of Katie Couric and the entry of a new executive team this year. Both the evening and morning news shows are still mired in third place. The evening show has been given a harder-news edge with new anchor Scott Pelley, while Moonves promises “big plans” for an entirely different “new kind of morning show,” also with a hard-news bent, though he is short on specifics.

Moonves has had his share of controversies this year, between the Charlie Sheen meltdown and gossip-page reports that his wife, CBS anchor Julie Chen, threw his name around (“My husband can fire your asses any day”) to threaten her co-hosts on the daytime show The Talk. He has kept quiet about the latter, but can’t help himself in our conversation: “Anybody that knows my wife knows she would never say that,” he says, and “never in a million years” would he say something like that, either.

So perhaps there’s just a bit of wishful thinking when he adds, “The watchword for us is, we always say that we may not be sexy, but we’re always solid. You can always count on us.”