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Les Moonves “Relieved” WGA Strike Averted; CBS Boss “Sympathetic” To Scribes’ Concerns

Deadline logo Deadline 5/3/2017 Dominic Patten
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“I think the town is very relieved that we are all going to keep working,” CBS Corp chairman and CEO Les Moonves said today during an A-list panel at the Milken Global Conference, regarding the strike-averting deal made early Tuesday morning between the WGA and the studios. “A lot of us who have been around a while remember 10 years ago and how dreadful that 100-day strike was,” he added to applause.

“We were very sympathetic to what the writers were concerned about,” the self-described “commercial for network television” revealed Wednesday, noting the issues of shows with shorter seasons and the financially challenged WGA health plan. “I think the companies were together and had a united front,” Moonves added of rumors that he had a direct role in the seemingly fractious contract talks this past weekend.

Of course, with some Donald Trump and an offer to an Oscar winner, it wasn’t all strike talk from Moonves at the “That’s Entertainment: Looking for the Next Stage” panel at the Beverly Hilton. Reese Witherspoon, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and UTA’s Jeremy Zimmer joined Moonves and Fox Networks Group head honcho Peter Rice. Which meant that, the never shy CBS boss actually faced a contender for airtime with the equally opinionated and loquacious Sarandos, who carries a fairly big global programming stick of his own.

When asked about the ongoing employee-poaching lawsuits between Netflix and Fox, Sarandos said “I wouldn’t have guessed a few months ago that we would be the least interesting legal story at News Corp.” The two sides have been throwing filings at each other since last fall, with Netflix putting the very notion of said contracts in California into question over execs who jumped over to the streamer in recent years despite having Fox employment contracts.

“Ultimately we want to understand what the rules are,” said a circumspect Rice. “If the California courts rule that personal employment contacts lack validity, we’ll live with that.”

Responded Sarandos: “We’ll let the court settle that.”

Despite that potentially loaded exchange, it was clear Moonves was the marquee attraction Wednesday for the panel hosted by CNBC’s Julia Boorstin.

“We program for America; we are the big tent,” he bluntly responded when asked whether programming would change at CBS under the Trump administration and the tone of the nation. “We don’t say, Donald Trump is President, let’s make something different,” added Moonves, whose company reports earnings tomorrow afternoon. “NCIS works now and it worked under Obama and Bush.”

At one point, Moonves even turned to Witherspoon. “Reese, it is time for you to do network television,” he told the Oscar winner. “Don’t make that face,” he joked, as the star of HBO’s Big Little Lies miniseries reacted to his onstage offer.

With a slight air of seriousness, the good-humored exchange got a big laugh from the packed ballroom. The well-timed remark came after Witherspoon was discussing the notion of same-day releasing and the generational divide that remains in Hollywood about the big screen vs. the small screen and theatrical rollouts.

Not that Sarandos wasn’t in the spotlight too – often with Moonves as his foil or visa versa. Repeatedly, the two seemed to almost be a Tinseltown version of that now-shuttered CNN show Crossfire as the pair parsed back and forth onstage like it was their own mutual State of the Industry appearance. As the CBS Films founder said, “the theatrical business is going to have to change their model,” the Netflix exec jumped in with, “it is the only business that hasn’t been impacted by the Internet.”

Even though the panel featured business competitors, there was much good humor among the media giants. “Don’t say hack,” a smiling Sarandos quipped, an unnamed reference to the online leak of the upcoming season of Orange Is The New Black this past weekend. Moonves said that CBS had “hacked” into some of Netflix’s unreleased numbers for some of their programming on the streaming service.

“They do tell you all the numbers, which is nice,” Witherspoon said of the Big Little Lies viewership on various platforms, as both Moonves and Sarandos laughed. Earlier, the CBS boss and Netflix exec teased one another over wanting to know each other’s unreleased subscription numbers.

Zimmer teased a client who is in talks with Netflix for a feature but was set on a theatrical release. “It’s generational,” Sarandos said. Neither would reveal who the talent was.

Asked about this year’s upfronts presentation in two weeks, Moonves took a self-referential approach. “I’m going say what I say every year: it’s going to great, it’s going to be up,” he told the suit-and-tie audience to more laughs.

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