Giving Them What They Want


After three decades in the TV business, Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS and the person most responsible for taking the network from last place to first in the ratings, has figured out a few things about what people want to see when they turn on their televisions. 'Americans do not like dark,' Moonves told me last May, before a scheduling meeting to select CBS's fall 2005 lineup.

Moonves, who was wearing a gray suit, white shirt and diagonally striped maroon and navy tie, was in a wood-paneled corner office on the 35th floor of Black Rock, the longtime home of CBS on 52nd Street in Manhattan. The office used to belong to William S. Paley, the legendary tycoon who personified CBS for more than 60 years. Truman Capote once remarked that Paley 'looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being,' and Moonves has that same sort of aggressive vigor -- an almost palpable appetite and enthusiasm for the complications and constant challenges of network TV.

On this particular Thursday, at 11 a.m., Moonves was considering which of the network's current shows to cancel in order to make room for new programs. He had decided to take a once-promising show called 'Joan of Arcadia' off the air. The show was about a teenager who receives directives and advice straight from God. 'In the beginning, it was a fresh idea and uplifting, and the plot lines were engaging,' Moonves said, sounding a little sad and frustrated. 'But the show got too dark. I understand why creative people like dark, but American audiences don't like dark. They like story. They do not respond to nervous breakdowns and unhappy episodes that lead nowhere. They like their characters to be a part of the action. They like strength, not weakness, a chance to work out any dilemma. This is a country built on optimism.'

One key to running a successful broadcast network is understanding just this kind of thing: what the audience wants -- sometimes even before it knows that it wants it. Like a candidate seeking election, a network and its shows are voted into prominence by the public. The people either tune in or they don't. Unlike the movie business or the premium cable industry (of which HBO is emblematic), which charge for their products and have much smaller, more homogeneous audiences, broadcast TV aims to attract the tens of million of Americans who might watch CBS (or ABC or NBC or Fox) on any given night. In recent years, CBS shows like 'C.S.I.,' 'Survivor' and 'Everybody Loves Raymond' have enticed those multitudes, and as a result the network has soared in the ratings. Moonves said that he hopes to have another success (or several) of that magnitude this coming season.

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Monty Solomon
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