Cbs's Real Survivor

As any TV executive will tell you, television is a game of numbers and gut feeling. And it was by those rules that CBS chief Leslie Moonves decided to end round-the-clock, commercial-free coverage of the 9-11 attacks after 93 hours, and to resume normal broadcasting with regular Saturday-morning fare, toy ads and all. CBS had lost upwards of $200 million of ads in the four days since Dan Rather and crew began nonstop news. By the weekend, viewers were tuning out: Nielsen reports revealed that the whopping 77 million audience on the night of the attacks had dwindled to half that size by Friday evening. Well aware that more was at stake than mere economics, Moonves took the unprecedented move of consulting with two CBS rivals to gauge the propriety of returning to business as usual.

Ultimately, Moonves and his network brethren agreed that the best way to help bolster the country was to do what they do best--even if that meant sitcoms and "Survivor." But was America really ready for a return to normal? CBS went to Las Vegas for answers. Tucked inside the MGM Grand Hotel is a CBS-owned laboratory called "Television City." Although it's billed as a "themed attraction" for the fanny-pack crowd, CBS uses tourists as research guinea pigs, a perfect cross section of TV viewers. Among the insights CBS gleaned after 9-11 was that the public still wanted a diet of comedy and reality TV--and was even in the mood for a new spy drama about terrorist plots. That was welcome news to a network that owes its rejuvenation to America's love for "Raymond" and hatred of Richard Hatch.

With the junior class of "Survivor" now weeding out its ranks on the African savanna, CBS may appear back to normal. But like so many enterprises, from bomb-builders to biotech firms, the TV networks have had to retool for the vastly altered times. Does the tone of shows fit the national mood? Can broadcasters air Osama bin Laden videos without jeopardizing national security? Have TV newsrooms become biological hot zones? Dealing with any of these matters is a huge management challenge. Now try doing it in a down economy, when your industry already has lost $1 billion in advance ad sales even before 9-11. In short, as chief executive of CBS, Les Moonves has one of corporate America's toughest jobs. "No one in the network-television business has ever faced this sort of crisis before," he says.

To judge from his record, Moonves, 52, is up to the fight. Arguably the most influential executive currently running a major network, Moonves was recently ranked Hollywood's third most powerful honcho by Entertainment Weekly. A 20-year veteran of the industry, he's a throwback to a time when TV executives were showmen, not suits. A former actor, Moonves likes to appear in network shows. Last year he took a bit part in "The Young and the Restless." Ending last season as the most-watched network with the No. 1 show, CBS had put a major dent in NBC's long-running supremacy. This season Moonves hoped to topple the Peacock Network, ending its iron grip on the youngish viewers (18-49) that advertisers covet.

But September 11 derailed CBS's momentum. Like his rivals, Moonves delayed the launch of the fall TV season, even though millions of dollars had been lavished on ad campaigns and cross-promotions with Target and Blockbuster stores. Finding himself with a heap of now-unusable plugs with incorrect dates or themes that sounded inappropriate in light of the tragedy, Moonves called on his marketing chief and devised a plan for revising and rescheduling the publicity blitz. To worsen matters, "Survivor," which was CBS's No. 1-rated show last season, has lost its phenomenal buzz and archrival NBC is enjoying a resurgence with old standbys like "Friends" and "E.R." as viewers turn to familiar "comfort food" programming.

Beyond the pressures of the fall schedule, there were life-and-death issues. When faced with the threat of anthrax at CBS News, Moonves counseled that the best strategy was to downplay it. At his suggestion, CBS asked Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had appeared grim-faced at NBC and ABC when bioterrorism struck there, not to attend a CBS press conference where News Division president Andrew Heyward and Dan Rather were explaining the attack.

As CBS plunges into the November "sweeps"--the all-important period when program ratings are used to set ad rates--it's clear that fall 2001 may not be the banner season Moonves had hoped for. Of the network's eight new shows, three have been canceled, and "The Ellen Show" is struggling because of 9-11 fallout, Moonves says. Originally, the Emmy Awards were to have been star Ellen DeGeneres's second coming-out party, following the cancellation of her ABC sitcom. But it wasn't until last week's much-lauded performance as Emmy emcee that Ellen got to strut her stuff. Too little, too late, maybe. "Ellen" has been mired near the bottom of the ratings basement. Although the Emmy's telecast had a respectable 18.5 million viewers, it didn't win the night as it usually does. That's because Moonves was undoubtedly eager to air the twice-postponed award show as quickly as possible, and based on network research of recent playoffs, he bet that there was almost no way the World Series on Fox would run to seven games this year. But it did, and CBS lost the evening to the boys of summer. To aggravate matters, Fox made certain that viewers wouldn't flip from the game, taking DeGeneres at her word when she joked on air that since she was having to announce ball scores during the awards show, Fox should announce the Emmy winners. "I felt so guilty, horrible," she told NEWSWEEK. "I don't want anyone [at CBS] to be mad at me."

To put things in perspective, CBS is hardly in dire straits. Returning hits like "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "CSI" are stronger than ever, and "Guardian," a new show, is off to a solid start. And although its buzz hasn't survived, "Survivor" remains a big hit. Along with "CSI," the reality show accounts for a $200 million increase in ads on Thursday nights alone, Moonves says. The network may pull in revenues of $4 billion to $5 billion for parent Viacom, and despite the many pressures, CBS profits will be up this year. And Moonves is firmly hanging on to his title as TV's Mogul to Watch. The White House and the Pentagon have been soliciting Hollywood's help in the war effort, among other things gathering screenwriters to dream up potential terrorist scenarios. Last weekend Moonves was one of a handful of Hollywood titans expected at a summit initiated by top Bush strategist Karl Rove. Now that Moonves has been called upon to help fight terrorism, maybe running a network won't seem quite so hard.