tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations Bloomberg May 2, 2018 9:00pm-9:30pm EDT
david: you actually started out, you wanted to be an actor. leslie: i was sort of a mediocre actor. i was also tending bar more than i was acting during those years. david: so what was your skill set, the scripts or the talent or both? leslie: we had the hottest comedy and the hottest drama in the world on television on nbc. david: companies like netflix and apple and facebook and amazon, they're in the streaming business. leslie: money alone doesn't lead to good programming. it is tough. we're competing with companies that could eat use live. -- us alive. david: when "survivor" came, that was an unusual show at the time. leslie: i said that's the stupidest idea i've ever heard. [laughter] >> would you fix your tie, please? people wouldn't recognize
me if my tie was fixed. just leave it this way. all right. i don't consider myself a journalist. nobody else would consider myself a journalist. i began to take on the life of being an interviewer, even though i have a day job of running a private equity firm. how do you define leadership? what is it that makes somebody tick? you actually started out, you wanted to be an actor, and after a number of years you abandoned that. have you ever thought that, you know, the country and the world has now missed having another de niro or pacino by your not being in the acting world? leslie: no, i think it was a great benefit to america that i decided to give that up and go to the other side. i think fairly early on -- and i was smart enough to realize that probably three or four or five years into my acting career, that i was sort of a mediocre
actor. i was also tending bar more than i was acting during those years. and i looked around, and i said, you know what, there are people who do this a lot better than i do. there's probably something else i could do in the business where i could satisfy my creative juices and still be involved, and it ended up being a good decision. david: it worked out. so you grew up on long island, right? and then you went to college at bucknell. did you want to be an actor there? leslie: no, i started out being premed. because that's what every jewish kid from long island had to do when you went to school, is you had to try to become a doctor. david: and what happened when you decided not to do it? leslie: well, i took my first organic chemistry class, and i said this is horrible. i'm bad at the sciences. and it was a tough conversation with my parents to tell them that i didn't want to be a doctor. david: what did your father say? leslie: we were at a bar in lewisburg, pennsylvania, which
is where bucknell is, and i broke it to my father, who was a hard-working guy. he owned gas stations and worked with his hands. i said i've decided i'm not going to be a doctor. and he said, well, what are you going to do? i said, well, i've decided i'm going to new york to become an actor. [laughter] leslie: and he said, what do you want to do that for? and i said, well, it's what makes me happy. and he said, happiness, you think that's all there is to life? [laughter] leslie: so that was sort of a typical response of that generation. when i finally became president of cbs, he forgave me. david: ok. so you went from bucknell, you went to new york to be an actor, a stage actor, and you did some tv shows actually. if somebody wants to watch "six million dollar man," you're there. leslie: there are a few episodes where i'm a bad guy being chased by lee majors. >> it is all right.
i think it is just a touch of heat. i just take him inside. he'll be all right. david: six million wasn't your compensation for that, right? leslie: no, it hardly wasn't, no. david: so, when you say ok, i'm not going to be an actor, and you weren't going to be a doctor, how did you decide to get into the other side of television, the production side? leslie: when i was an actor, you know, most of the time as an actor, you're on set, and you're virtually doing nothing. you go there for a 16-hour day and you're probably working about 20 minutes. so i was sort of fascinated with what everybody else did, and i sort of did a quick study on what it was like to be on a set and learned about what the business was about. and so when an opportunity came to get to the other side of the camera as a junior executive in a production company, i jumped at it. david: so when you do that business, you have to be good at either reading scripts and say this is going to work or picking talent. so what was your skill set, the scripts or talent or both? leslie: you know what? being a mediocre actor, i knew good actors.
i really did. i can say, gee, i wish i could do that, and i sort of felt that. and look, i had very good creative instincts. i watched a lot of television. i saw what was working, what wasn't working. and i became good at it. i became good at picking shows. i joined around 1985 and it got bought by warner brothers, and i became president of warner brothers television. soon after that, we had 23 shows on the air. we were leading in the number of shows. i think the next highest had like 12 shows on. but not only did we have 23 shows on the air, we had "e.r." and "friends," so we had the hottest comedy and the hottest drama in the world on television on nbc. david: let's talk about "e.r." was that your idea? where did the idea come from? how did you green light it? leslie: it wasn't my idea. "e.r." was based on a script that had been written 20 years earlier through steven spielberg's company, and michael creighton, the famous sci-fi writer had written the script.
we read the script, went, made a deal with nbc, and then we produced the show. i think my major contribution to that was george clooney. david: you selected him? leslie: george was the guy that i put under contract for four years in a row. he was doing a lot of pilots. he was doing a lot of episodes. and he really wasn't getting anywhere. and i believed in him. i said this guy is really good looking. he's really charming. [laughter] leslie: he's a great guy. so i was the one who talked the producer into using george clooney in "e.r." david: and did he call you many times and thank you, or still thanks you? leslie: by the way, believe it or not, he still calls and he thanks me. we're still very close friends. he's the only one -- most actors, most producers, most directors, once they succeed, they forget anybody else helped
them, you know? that's sort of the way of the world. i think it's the same in washington as it is in hollywood. [laughter] leslie: where once you succeed, you forget that anybody helped you along the way. george was one of the few people, whenever given the opportunity, always thanks me. david: so "friends," what about them? leslie: we hired the writers put together the show. every show that you've been involved in, you can write a whole book about. a whole novel about it. "friends" was sold first to fox. they wanted it. they didn't want to pay an extra $100,000 for the script. so it flipped over to nbc. that was only a decision that may have cost them $5 billion. [laughter] leslie: you know, there are interesting stories. "c.s.i." was originally owned by abc. then it was sold to cbs, and abc owned half of it. then they dropped out of owning that half of it. right? "c.s.i." up to now has made the cbs corporation in revenues
something like $6 billion. so those are big mistakes. you're gambling with -- [laughter] you're gambling with a lot of money here. david: but when you're deciding on a show or not, you get pitched by agents or the actors call you directly, how do you make decisions who the actors are, the script? leslie: it's a little bit of both. it starts with the writers. it starts with the idea, the concept. occasionally an actor will come attached to it. most of the time not. most of the time you get a producer and a writer who comes, and jerry bruckheimer will come in and say, hey, i got this idea called "c.s.i." it's about a crime scene lab in las vegas, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. then we attach william petersen to it, and then it rolls from there. david: if you are les moonves and you go to a restaurant in hollywood or los angeles, does somebody come up and say, by the way, i have a script, or my nephew is great for a show, or you don't get bothered? leslie: all the time. it happens consistently. the thing that people don't quite understand is it's about the execution.
it's not about the idea. you know, so you look at -- you mentioned a show like "e.r." what is it about? it's a hospital show, but it's what happens in that hospital show. what is "cheers" about? it's about eight people in a bar. so when a guy comes up to me and says, i'm a podiatrist, you should see our office is so funny. you got the receptionist there. and you got the old guy there. and this guy there. you know, it's a great idea for a show. and, you know, so you politely say, here's my email, please send it to me. david: has anybody ever come to you and said a private equity show would be pretty good? [laughter] leslie: well, i've seen your performance at the kennedy center for many years. you have -- you have potential. you do. david: really? well, i -- i've wondered about that. sometimes at the kennedy center honors, the chairman goes out and makes a little presentation at intermission. but on tv, it only comes up for like five seconds. so you don't broadcast it. have you thought about broadcasting the entire 20
minutes of my presentation? [laughter] david: is there a lot of demand for that? leslie: you're lucky we put the five seconds on. [laughter] [applause] david: right. companies like netflix and apple and facebook and amazon, they're in the streaming business, right? leslie: money alone doesn't lead to good programming. it is tough. we're competing with companies that are, you know, that could eat us alive. ♪
♪ david: you obviously got a good reputation at warner, so somebody came along and said this man has a golden touch. and so cbs recruited you. so what shows were you producing at the early days in cbs that people would have heard of? leslie: well, our fist hit show during that time was "everybody loves raymond." you know, we were desperately in last place. we put on "raymond," and we slowly began to build brick by brick, and a couple of years later is when we put on "c.s.i." and "survivor," and that sort of changed the game. those two shows came on in the same year. nbc, which had dominated network television for two decades, we put them both on thursday night. and we took down nbc for the
first time in two decades on thursday, and we ended up beating them, and we've now beat them for the last 14 out of 15 years. david: so like "survivor." when "survivor" came, that was an unusual show at the time. did you say get this guy out of here, that's crazy, or you said maybe there's something to it? leslie: no, the first time one of my guys pitched it to me i said that's the stupidest idea i've ever heard. that doesn't belong on cbs. that belongs on some bad cable network. david: right. [laughter] leslie: 16 people on a desert island, and one gets thrown out every week? that's ridiculous. so he was persistent, this young development executive. and then he brought mark burnett in to meet me. and for those who don't know him, he's maybe the most persuasive person you've ever seen, you know? he subsequently after that did a show called "the apprentice," and we know what happened from there. david: who was the star of that show? leslie: i don't remember. i don't remember. but mark burnett was a great producer. he put on "survivor," and here
we are 18 years later, "survivor" is still on wednesday night at 8:00 and still wins its time period. david: do you ever say this show is going to be great and it turns out to be a bomb? do you have any of those stories? leslie: all the time. all the time. look, our batting average is better than most, but it's still probably four out of 10. four out of 10 is the hall of famer in television. but that's sort of the television business. you know you're playing for a few wins. david: in television, everything seems to be ratings. are you sure that the people who do the ratings are really giving you accurate numbers? leslie: well, that's one of the questions, especially now, because now linear ratings aren't the whole ballgame like they used to be. so you'll take a show that initially, in the initial viewing, won't be that good, but when you count dvr's and online ratings, suddenly the numbers go up considerably. david: i notice in ratings very often tv shows are judged by how
many people the ages of 18 to 49, or 25 to 54, are watching. what about the people who really have the money who are in their 60's and are really sophisticated? why aren't they counting? leslie: you're absolutely right. that's one of the things that's bothered me for all these years, and it has changed. they used to do 18 to 49 was all that mattered. that's changed. and the argument was, who has more money? a 50-year-old or a 19-year-old? who has more money? who has the buying power? and i remember one year, nbc was out selling that they have the highest 18 to 25-year-old upscale viewers. so i do my presentation, and i said the only 18 to 25-year-old upscale people i know are my kids. you know? [laughter] leslie: and i'm deciding what kind of car they're going to buy, not them, you know? so, you know, it was sort of a bogus statistic. and you're right, so now the good news is, more and more people who are a little bit older, the average age of the "60 minutes" viewer is over 60.
but we make a lot of money on that show. we are selling a lot of pharmaceuticals during that show. [laughter] leslie: we're selling a lot. but i notice they still make a lot of money. david: the shows i watch, they often have depends ads or they have catheter ads. leslie: and we're not going to talk about e.d. either. david: wasn't viagra a big seller for you? leslie: it was, but they changed the patent laws. in all seriousness, viagra has gone down. [laughter] leslie: and by the way, that was made up by the head of our advertising group. i'm not going to steal that joke. david: ok. all right, so your career is moving forward. you're at cbs. and then all of a sudden somebody comes along and wants to buy all of cbs, and that is viacom. leslie: i became the co-president of viacom with the guy who ran mtv. david: and then after a couple of years where viacom has cbs, and viacom decided it would be better to split the companies in two. leslie: correct. david: the theory at the time was that cbs was a little slower
growing. it turned out to be the opposite. why did everybody get it wrong? leslie: well, not going to talk about viacom in a pejorative manner. look, at the time, we were the slow growth company. we owned the tv network. we owned a bunch of radio stations. we owned a billboard company. we owned tv stations. the other side at paramount pictures, they had nickelodeon and mtv. we liked being the underdog. ok, it's via grow, via slow. that is what they called us. our market cap has grown about $12 billion since then. we grew a lot. we have done extremely well. our stock price has gone up considerably. i think we're very competitive. i think we figured out the internet space. we figured out how to put our content online very quickly. so it's been a good decade for us in terms of the growth. david: going forward many times people who get cable services,
they have a cable contract. now there's what they call cord cutting. they don't really want all of these cable channels. how does that affect you? leslie: there are a couple of things that have changed. now there are things called skinny bundles, ok? the average home right now gets 180 channels. they pay approximately $100 a month for that. so some of the operators said, wait a minute, people are paying for channels they never watch. so they do what's called a skinny bundle, which is they put together the 30 or 40 best channels, charge you 1/3, $35, $40, and you buy that. we will always be a part of that. the skinnier bundle. then the third segment is we now have our own line service. so for $5.99, you can get a thing called cbs all access, which is basically every show cbs has ever produced, the entire library, our current schedule, plus now we're beginning to do original programming there. david: ok. a lot of this is streaming.
leslie: correct, streaming. david: now netflix, apple, facebook, and amazon, they're in the streaming service. leslie: right. david: is that going to cut into your ability to get the best talent, because they have so much money they can pay crazy prices? leslie: it is a challenge. they are very competitive. they are spending a lot of money. at the end of the day, we produce most of our own content now. we have to be very competitive with them. money alone doesn't lead to good programming. what we like say is, you can't program by algorithm, you know, which is part of what netflix does. and they do a lot of programs. they're doing 75 original programs, and they put them out there, and they have a certain amount of hits. our job is we have to be a lot more concise in what we're producing for our audience, and as i said, creatively, i think we're as good as anybody, and that's what wins the day for us, you know? it is tough. we're competing with companies that are, you know, that could eat us alive.
david: so for example, apple is gigantic financially, amazon and so forth, so you're now relatively modest in terms of market capitalization compared to them. so it's your talent, your skill that you think makes you able to compete? leslie: no question. in addition, it's broadcast. broadcast, people say broadcast is dead. it's not. it's still the only place you can go to get 20 million people a week watching "ncis" or "big bang theory." so if you're an advertiser, and you want to reach an audience, you still need the big guys, the big broadcaster. david: you broadcast football. is that the most profitable. leslie: it is not the most profitable, but those ratings you can't live without it. still the best game in town. david: super bowl, is that the most expensive thing one can advertise on television. leslie: yes. i think the last super bowl got $5.2 million for a 32nd spot --
♪ david: so let's talk about some of the shows you have now. you have the number one-rated news show, which is "60 minutes." how do you keep it so lively and up to date? leslie: i think "60 minutes" is the gold standard. i still think people want to go there. it's still the place where people get their most news, and i think our guys do a phenomenal job. i think it's also now so culturally significant that people know, 7:00 sunday night, there's one place to go, and that's "60 minutes." so they remain, in year 50, a top 15 show in america. david: you have the number one, i guess, drama show, "ncis." is that right? leslie: right. david: where did that idea come from? leslie: it was a spinoff of a show called "jag," a navy military show, which was sort of
based on that tom cruise, jack nicholson movie, i'm blanking on it. david: "a few good men." leslie: thank you. courtroom drama, navy doing it, that was "jag," and this became, you know, we had been obviously successful with "c.s.i.," so we took the "jag" formula, made it into a procedural drama. and now we've spun "ncis" off twice. like we did with "csi." david: what about "big bang theory," where did that come from? leslie: that came from chuck lorre, who worked on "two and a half men," created that show and came to us with that idea, and we put it on the air, and it's been a success ever since. david: let's talk about the evening news shows. when i was growing up, when you were growing up, people would watch 15 minutes of evening news, then it went to 30 minutes. but now people have so many news sources, do that many people watch the evening news shows? are they still as relevant as they were? leslie: the three network evening news combined are
watched still by 23 million, 24 million a night. that's not nearly what it used to be when walter cronkite and huntley and brinkley were doing it, where it was the only source of news. because, you know, what you say is absolutely valid. people are getting their news all day long, so i think the 6:30 news now sort of gives you further insight into the news as opposed to just reporting the news. and i think they do well. they do better in times of crises. obviously during the hurricanes, people want to see what's going on. but now with the advent of these big cable news networks, and also with all that you get online, they become a bit less important, but 23 million people are still a lot of people. david: ok. so you have recently had your head of your cbs evening news show go to "60 minutes." do you have any announcements you want to make today on who the replacement is? leslie: nope, we have an acting person doing the job, and we're talking about what we can do for the future, but we have no announcements. david: you don't want anybody -- leslie: we're not making news
today, david, no matter what you say. david: ok. you wouldn't consider having a private equity person do that? [laughter] leslie: maybe. maybe. david: ok. leslie: there have been worse ideas, you know? why don't you buy cbs? then put yourself in as the anchor. [laughter] david: that's about the only way i would get in as the anchor, but ok. you broadcast football. is that the most profitable thing on television for networks? leslie: it's not the most profitable, but it's the most important. it's by far the highest rated. we pay quite a bit in rights fees, as do the other networks. we do make a profit on it, but those ratings, you can't live without it. it's still the best game in town. david: the super bowl, is that the most expensive thing one can advertise on in television? leslie: yes. i think this last super bowl got $5.2 million per 30-second spot on it. so it's, unfortunately we only get it ever third year. -- get it every third year. but when that third year comes, it's very lucrative. david: do you ever feel you are losing touch with the younger people that are often making
decisions about what shows are most popular? leslie: i got a phenomenal team of people. i think as the c.e.o. of a corporation, that's the best thing you can do is hire really good people. so we have the cbs interactive division is made up of about 2,000 people up in san francisco, who i visit with frequently. and their average age is like 24 or something like that. and they're phenomenal. they're phenomenal in terms of -- and there's a lot of dialogue, and you know what? in this job, you got to be a good listener. you got to be a good listener, a good observer to what's going on, and once again, i may be the final arbiter on which shows go on the air, but there's a lot of input, and i listen to a lot of good people. david: what's the greatest pleasure of doing the job? leslie: i get to meet the greatest people in the world. i get to work with some of them. when i think of the people that i've met, from politics to athletes to entertainers, it's pretty cool. it's pretty cool. david: so how do you get away from it all? are you a golfer? are you an exerciser?
what do you do? leslie: i'm a mediocre golfer. i exercise fairly regularly. i have a spectacular wife, who is also on a couple of cbs television shows. i have four great kids, who i don't get to spend enough time with, but three of them are out of the house. i watch a lot of movies. i enjoy that. i have a small circle of friends who i don't get to see enough. but, you know what? i work hard, but i play hard, too. i'm pretty content. david: ok, so now your parents have lived to see your success. your mother just passed away about a year ago, but at the age of 93. and your father is alive at -- leslie: 96. david: did he ever say, yes, you really did make the right decision? [laughter] leslie: oh, yeah. you know, when i bought him a car, he said you did good, you know? [laughter] leslie: it was ok. no, you know what? he's been proud of me a long time. and, you know, it's been great. ♪ we use our phones and computers
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♪ >> she grew up in dallas, texas. a young girl who loved computers. in 1987, she landed her first job i do newly public company called "microsoft." she met the man who would later become her husband. cofounder bill gates. last three decades, bill and melinda k have become two of the world's most prolific philanthropists. she is empowering women everywhere, especially in technology. joining me today on