FINALLY WE AGREE ON SOMETHING: As we’ve reported here before, it looks like upstart Fox, riding on the supercharged fumes of Idol, will finally dethrone CBS as the top network this year, a milestone it has threatened to accomplish practically every year since I started writing this column. Even CBS CEO Les Moonves has acknowledged this inevitability at a McGraw-Hill Media Summit last week, admitting that “Yeah, we'll finish No. 2.”

And Moonves knows that Idol is the culprit. “If someone would kill that show I'd really appreciate it ... It's tough to compete with,” he said, in an article in the New York Post last Friday. “While we're in repeats, American Idol continues to be a monster.”

CBS is considering new strategies to compete, he said, which apparently might include, uh, buying the Weather Channel. Moonves must be banking on some pretty harsh weather.


At the same event, Moonves said that despite tight earnings from broadcast revenue, the outdoor billboard business – as low tech a media as you can imagine today that doesn’t involve runners or beacon fires – has been a cash cow for the company. “I'm a TV guy," Moonves was quoted as saying in Variety, recalling how he ended up being saddled with the billboard business when CBS split from Viacom. “I said what is this? What's the future? Now it's our fastest growing business ... I love it.”

It was with a start that I read that CBS – unlike so many entertainment conglomerates, most newspapers, and even CBS up till about two years ago – actually has an online strategy, one that Moonves described as charging advertisers to be embedded in clips and episodes of CBS and Showtime content that it syndicates to some 200 websites. The business earns them US$ 200 million a year, and apparently grows 30 to 40 per cent a year.

A big slice of that comes from streaming NCAA men’s basketball championships on the web. In the first year of the three-year-old venture, it only earned $250,000. “The next year, $4 million, then $10 million,” said Moonves. “This year will have about $23 million in advertising. And it's new revenue from content that we already have. It drops right to the bottom line.” You have to imagine that, for someone like Moonves, this sort of information is likely to be delivered amidst a barrage of giggles, punctuated by the sort of contented sigh your dog makes after consuming a whole ham off the table without being caught.

Amazingly, Moonves said something else I actually agreed with when deploringly assessed the conventional wisdom that’s made young viewers – college age and younger – the prime demographic. “The only upscale 18-year-olds I know are my children, and they have to come to me if they want to buy a car. It's a bullshit demographic, forgive me," he said, "that they're the ones with the discretionary income, and the 50-year-old is thrown in the garbage. It's one of the great old wives' tales."

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