At UPN, it's the power of Les

Posted: Dec 20, 2001 12:00 AM
Last week, the entertainment conglomerate Viacom put Leslie Moonves in charge of one of its television networks, UPN. Since Moonves already was the head of Viacom-owned CBS, this means he'll now run one-third of America's major broadcast webs. This isn't a case of an executive failing upward. Where all-important prime time was concerned, CBS was in sad shape in June 1995 when it hired Moonves as its entertainment chief. By 2001 the network was finishing first in total viewers in all three sweeps periods. The last time CBS had won three straight sweeps was 1983-'84, the heyday of "Dallas" and "Magnum, P.I." Of Moonves' exploits, one prominent media-industry analyst, Jessica Reif Cohen of Merrill Lynch, remarked to the New York Times, "Les has done an amazing job at CBS, above and beyond what anyone expected he could do. He's even bringing in younger viewers" -- who, of course, weren't attracted to such '90s CBS series as "Diagnosis Murder" but flock to "Survivor." Under Moonves, CBS has been the most family-friendly broadcast network when compared with the competition, but to say that is to damn with faint praise since the others have been wretched. In absolute terms, CBS has done, overall, a mediocre job of serving the family audience. Moonves grudgingly accepted early on what a lot of network suits continue to refuse to concede: providing a certain amount of wholesome fare is simply smart business. It would be hard to argue, however, that he's ever been personally committed to family programming or even solicitous of family viewers. Early in 1998, he yanked CBS's top-ranked 8 p.m. Saturday staple "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" from the lineup, replacing it with a violent Western, "The Magnificent Seven." It was a bad move ("Magnificent Seven" didn't last long) and a shameful one, given that a few months earlier, Moonves had promised to air only family shows between 8 and 9. CBS's affronts to the family audience increased markedly in 1999 and 2000. There was a deliberate increase in raw language, like the ballyhooed unbleeped use of "s--t" on "Chicago Hope." Show topics headed for the sewer; the family-hour reality show "Big Brother," for example, featured uninhibited chat about such topics as masturbation and the difficulty of trying to urinate when one's penis is erect -- and, yes, an unbleeped use of "s--t." And there was the downright disgusting, like the Steven Bochco family-hour drama "City of Angels," one episode of which centered on a gay man who, as a result of sex play gone amiss, is brought to a hospital with a Golden Globe award stuck up his rectum. Although at CBS Moonves did allow a few family-oriented shows, his heart clearly has never been with them. He dismissed objections to scheduling "City of Angels" in the family hour, stating, "It's a different world now. You have 'Friends' at 8 and 'Beverly Hills, 90210' at 8." He's suggested that the mega-foul cable cartoon "South Park" could air unedited on CBS as long as it carried a parental-guidance advisory. And in early 2000, he told TV Guide that his 15-year-old daughter's favorite show was HBO's ultra-raunchy "Sex and the City," adding, "Let's face it, she's a sophisticated kid who is not exactly turned on by 'JAG' and 'Touched By an Angel.'" It's not often you'll find a TV executive trashing his own shows, but when they're family-friendly, like "Touched By an Angel," or close to it, like "JAG," they become objects of ridicule even for the heads of the networks that make millions off them. So Moonves now has a new sandbox, UPN, whose audience is less than 40 percent that of CBS. It airs no shows suitable for family viewing. Its highest-rated series stands 67th in the Nielsens. Perhaps its best-known program is the overflowing septic tank that is "WWF Smackdown!" The vast majority of what this flop of a network (it loses millions of dollars annually) has to offer is sheer stupidity, moronic programs for moronic people. But this is by design. Viacom president Mel Karmazin, who has given us the likes of Howard Stern, is perfectly comfortable with this genre. Memo to Mr. Moonves: Stern's television show was canceled by public demand. Your new network is headed in the same direction. Be smart. Change course.