Moonves: CBS Pushing for Rights to Live-Stream NFL Games

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CBS Corp. Chairman-CEO Les Moonves said he doesn't like sharing Thursday night football with NBC, but prefers the package CBS got.
CBS Corp. Chairman-CEO Les Moonves said he doesn't like sharing Thursday night football with NBC, but prefers the package CBS got. Credit: Bill Inoshita/CBS

With just hours to go before CBS kicks off its third season of "Thursday Night Football" in Buffalo, Les Moonves told investors he was confident that the network eventually would be able to work out a deal to simulcast NFL games via its OTT service, CBS All Access.

In a Thursday morning Q&A session at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference, the CBS Corp. chairman and CEO suggested that conversations over live-streaming NFL games are ongoing. "I anticipate before too long that we'll be able to make a deal with the NFL," Mr. Moonves said. "We talk to them a lot. They know our desire to get [the games] on our service, and we think a deal will happen in the not-too-distant future."

As part of a wide-ranging discussion with Merrill analyst Jessica Reif Cohen, the CBS chief said the network would likely break even on its slimmed-down new Thursday night NFL package, which features three fewer games than the 2014 and 2015 slates. "We had eight games last year. I like that better, although we lost more money," Mr. Moonves said, before acknowledging that CBS ultimately had little choice but to split the broadcast schedule with NBC. "You never like seeing a competitor getting a part of what you do, but such is the NFL. They're the 800-lb gorilla, and when the NFL says 'jump,' you say, 'yes sir.'"

Bossy primate metaphors aside, Mr. Moonves said he was confident that CBS got the better end of the deal, largely because "Thursday Night Football" has proven to be an invaluable means of teeing up the fall schedule. With an average draw of 17.5 million viewers, a 10.9 household rating and a 5.9 in the adults 18-to-49 demo, last year's "TNF" broadcasts were CBS's second-biggest reach vehicle, trailing only its Sunday afternoon national NFL window.

Mr. Moonves also said that airing the front half of the "TNF" package means that CBS is far less exposed to the possibility of being saddled with garbage-time games. "NBC has the five games towards the latter half of the season. We like having the early games because at this point, everybody is still in contention," he said. "After two or three weeks, some of them are not, and you get [stuck with] a team that you know is out of the ballpark."

As Mr. Moonves' marketing team works to make younger NFL viewers into converts for other CBS programming -- look for a barrage of promos for the freshman series "Kevin Can Wait," "Bull" and "MacGuyver" to air during tonight's Jets-Bills broadcast -- the acquisitions department is cooling its heels. With a roster that includes the NFL, SEC and Big Ten college football, the NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament (which it co-manages with Turner Sports) and the Masters and PGA Championship, CBS isn't on the lookout for any new sports properties.

"We're sort of happy with the hand that we're playing," he said. "We didn't even look at Major League Baseball. We did not look at the NBA. We're happy with what we have, and some of those deals are probably not profitable."

Nor does CBS have any inclination to get back together with its one-time corporate sibling. "The truth of the matter is we are a standalone public company. … We're doing extraordinarily well on our own with our own assets," Mr. Moonves said. "We are never going to do something that is bad for the CBS shareholders or the employees. So I just want to leave it at that. We are not in active discussions for anything like that."

In the wake of last month's ouster of Viacom chairman and CEO Philippe Dauman, tongues from Wall Street to Studio City have been wagging about a possible reunification of CBS and Viacom, which went their separate ways back in 2006. But Mr. Moonves has shown no interest in a merger, and any accretive value such a reunion would pose for CBS's financials effectively has been wiped out (for the time being, anyway) by Viacom's distressed share price.

Rather than invest in M&A, Mr. Moonves said that he would prefer to spend money on share buybacks and content. Speaking of which, CBS's most anticipated new project, the premiere of the Bryan Fuller-Alex Kurtzman series "Star Trek: Discovery" has been pushed back to May 2017, four months later than its original premiere date. Mr. Moonves said the shift came at the request of the show's creators, who said they needed a few additional months to perfect the show's audacious special effects.

"I'd rather it be a few months late and great than early and not great, because we will suffer for it," Mr. Moonves cracked, in a nod to the tyranny of Trekkie fanaticism and the deafening grievance megaphone that is social media. "Star Trek: Discovery" will premiere on the CBS broadcast network before moving over to All Access.

Some of the other topics Mr. Moonves addressed included the upfront ("our best in, like, a decade"), dynamic ad insertion ("it's early innings, but becoming more and more important"), the CW, which it co-owns with Warner Bros. ("it's never been in better financial shape") and the Nielsen rat race ("ratings mean so much less than they ever have before … they really are almost irrelevant now that the backend has become more and more important"). CBS closed out the 2015-16 TV season as the most-watched and highest-rated network.

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