Once upon a time, a celestial kingdom of comely citizens was rocked by brash newcomers (Britney Spears, Shawn Fanning), planned mergers (AOL Time Warner), a beautiful princess (Julia, of course), and real-life fairy-tale scribes (J.K. Rowling). And we’ve got the scrolls to prove it: For some, this year’s Power List — EW’s 11th annual — will seem as grim as a troll-filled fable (sorry, Harvey Weinstein). For others, there are pages and pages of pixie dust (or Powerpuffs, as the case may be). But who is the stalwart emperor of this make-believe land? The fairest of them all is none other than CBS’ Les Moonves — responsible for turning a bunch of scraggly, rat-eating beach bums into a Cinderella story. Who says there’s no such thing as happily ever after?
1. Leslie MOONVES
LAST YEAR 14
There was a time when you couldn’t swing a Medic Alert bracelet without hitting a joke about CBS’ aging audience: The Eye network has cataracts… Murder, She Wrote was axed because viewers felt Angela Lansbury was too hot for TV… the list goes on. But after five years under the helm of Leslie Moonves, 51, something miraculous has happened. The net is no longer up to its old geria-tricks, and viewers one-quarter Mike Wallace’s age are tuning in, an accomplishment akin to luring the AARP to a Limp Bizkit concert, and worthy of the No. 1 slot on EW’s annual Power List.
Moonves has always had a knack for picking hits: As president of Warner Bros. Television (his employer before CBS), he helped develop such critical and advertiser dreams as ER and Friends. At his current home, that eye — focused by his entertainment president, Nancy Tellem, who, with a loyal, mostly female staff, has been with him since Warner — has lit upon and cultivated such hits as Everybody Loves Raymond and Judging Amy. But this year he truly outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted his network rivals with a little tropical TV show called Survivor.
After Moonves handed the usually static summer over to producer Mark Burnett (who comes in at No. 81 on this list) and 16 mosquito-bitten backstabbers, youngsters tuned in to see what the bug eating was all about — even those in his own home. ”Survivor marked the first time my kids came home and said all their friends were watching,” he says. The show’s nail-biting finale lured an average of 51.7 million viewers, with 28.4 million in the elusive 18-49 demographic. This one show seemed to give the entire network immunity. The notorious feeding-hand biter David Letterman relished the 15 percent spike in total viewers he enjoyed this summer, and banished islanders gave the once-lost hope Early Show a temporary 8 percent bump. Plus, by sparking a craving for reality, Moonves ensured that even the pulse-resistant Big Brother would be a relative hit. Snore all you like, Brother attracted 21 million new viewers to the net and dropped CBS’ median age to 49 from last year’s 53, a number that could continue to lower thanks to synergy with sister company MTV: Carson Daly has been signed to a development deal, and a hip-hop halftime show is planned for January’s Super Bowl broadcast.
Factor in the strong fall buzz for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bette, a strong start for the execrable sitcom Yes, Dear, and the three-month-premature excitement for Survivor: The Australian Outback, and Moonves’ Viacom bosses, Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin, should promote him… but there aren’t many responsibilities left to give. He was put in charge of CBS syndication in August ’97, and of the company’s 35 stations last May. He also heads CBS News and Sports and sits on Viacom’s board of directors. With his knack for attracting youth, perhaps a VJ stint isn’t far away.