Les, We Forget: TV Business Is More Than High Ratings

"Staying power" is how Les Moonves describes the fact that the network business is the best game in town.

It's hard to argue with the CEO of CBS Corp. In the middle '90s, with cable networks pounding away at broadcast networks, gaining ratings ground at a constant pace of double digit percentage increases per year, it was all assumed that broadcast networks would be pulled down --show by show--and that cable networks would be the new kings in the new millennium.

That didn't quite happen. When older video distribution companies, like that of CBS Corp., have outperformed supposedly newer ones, like that of Viacom Inc., home of cool networks like MTV, Spike, VH1 and Nickelodeon, you have analysts scratching their heads.  Even more scratching occurs when a longtime Viacom executive, Tom Freston, gets the axe because of slightly underwhelming performance.



But don't get too high and mighty just yet, broadcast executives. There are still new technologies on the horizon, such as Apple's newly proposed iTV device that can transfer video, wirelessly, to TV screens. All this could change TV dynamics once again. Perhaps in prime time we'll all be watching more short videos of skateboarders crashing into gargage cans from our friends at

There are still weakening areas of TV programming, as well. New syndicated shows, the talker "The Dr. Keith Ablow Show," and the court show, "Judge Maria Lopez," debuted last week with less than 1.0 ratings.

And while "The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" had a blast-off great first week, she came back to earth orbit Monday, Sept. 11, coming in third place, the show's longtime spot among the big three network newscasts.

Perhaps viewers had some nice fun with Katie Couric and her lighter entertainment news bits, such as with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' new baby, Suri, in the first week. One can only speculate that now, viewers realize that it must be time to get to back to serious business. Serious news business, that is.

While Moonves talked about the stability of CBS's prime-time lineup at Merrill Lynch's annual media conference, CBS may be too cautious. It hasn't seemed to lose much ground or, for that matter, gain huge ratings.  But as we all know that isn't the real story.

Moonves went on to say it's the ancillary businesses for a show like "CSI" that is the tale of the tape--not just about selling ad time from a network prime-time airing. It's revenue from DVDs, merchandising, publishing, syndication and cable, and wireless and other digital outlets--all which have pulled in some $2 billion in profits for the six-year-old show.

Network prime time has a funny way of changing direction, at a moment's notice. Thus the rush to do all things non-prime-time-related. Somehow Moonves has mastered the art of putting off the only thing predictable in television-- a network's drop from a high ratings perch.

It isn't the "staying power" of network TV; it's the "staying power" of not being only a TV network.

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