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Leslie Moonves: Les Is More

The President of CBS packs a mean punch

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In restoring luster to the Tiffany network, Leslie Moonves has worked a small miracle. In less than three years, CBS has rebounded from third place and, with the Winter Olympics, is poised to win its second straight sweeps. Now, if only he could stop those Depends jokes…

He stands 5 foot 9 but seems taller. His voice — a near rasp — manages to fill rooms and demand attention. He exudes authority, commanding respect with easy assurance. If they kissed rings in Hollywood, Leslie Moonves’ fingers would be moist with the aspiration of acolytes. “It’s a Mafia kind of loyalty,” deadpans Family Matters star Jaleel White (a.k.a. Urkel).

Although we aren’t suggesting any real Mob connections here, the general feeling back in 1995 was that to save struggling CBS the network needed a leader with the ruthless cunning of a Vito Corleone. And guess what? After just two and a half years at the job, Moonves has started earning his bones: Last November, the now second-place CBS won its first sweeps in three years, and the Eye will likely do it again in February, thanks to the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan (which, in addition to drawing an estimated $560 million in advertising, is certain to attract the sort of viewers CBS desperately needs: young men). Furthermore, the network’s Sunday prime-time lineup (60 Minutes, Touched by an Angel, and the CBS Sunday Movie) is the second most dominant of the week, right after NBC’s Thursday juggernaut.

The perception is that Moonves has taken out his competition with the precision and efficiency of a hitman. But has he really? Or as cynics suggest, are his brass knuckles really made of tin?

Humility isn’t a trait usually associated with network presidents, but Moonves is visibly humble tonight. He’s donned black tie to attend an event sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. Actually, “attend” is a bit misleading: The former TV actor (and incidentally, grandnephew of Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion) is about to receive the committee’s annual Human Relations award. Taped testimonials from old pal Don Ohlmeyer, NBC’s West Coast president, and new pal William Jefferson Clinton, America’s president, fill a giant screen in the Beverly Wilshire’s ballroom. George Clooney — who can thank Moonves for his current good fortune (as the then head of Warner Bros. TV, he cast the actor in ER) — has been tapped to introduce the honoree. “Les is a bad actor,” quips Clooney, “but ultimately he stood by me and is an honorable man.”

The room is packed with stars, agents, and industry execs who either need a favor, or owe Moonves one. Longtime friends and coworkers swear by his integrity, claiming he’s never fired anyone he’s personally recruited. He does, however, demand loyalty — and almost always gets it. “You’re either with him or you’re against him,”‘ says White.

These days, it’s hard to find anyone truly against Moonves. There are those, however, who feel he’s getting more praise than he deserves. ABC Entertainment chairman Stu Bloomberg chastised the press recently, saying that CBS’ perceived momentum “is created by Leslie Moonves, and you all print it. They have to be losing a pile of dough.”

CBS, as a corporate entity (including lucrative radio and TV stations), certainly isn’t losing money; 1997 profits were about $800 million and this year the company expects to make $1.2 billion. The prime-time lineup is another story. Moonves claims his shows are making a profit—if you buy the new math: Networks used to count only profits from ad revenue; with those fees now barely covering production costs, they sometimes factor in other income, including that from their TV stations.

In fact, CBS’ entertainment division didn’t make money last year, but the situation is improving. Fourth-quarter revenues jumped from 1996 ($596 million) to 1997 (about $700 million) and losses dropped by $50 million to about $25 million. Wall Street is impressed; investors have expressed enough confidence in Moonves and his bosses — CEO Michael Jordan and stations group CEO Mel Karmazin — that CBS stock has nearly doubled since May. “A lot of it is good faith,” says Merrill Lynch VP Jessica Reif Cohen. “They’re a horse worth betting on.”