CBS network head honcho Leslie Moonves enjoyed helping television reporters to sharpen their teeth today for their upcoming sessions with the suits at ABC and NBC.
And why not? His is the only major broadcast network with an at least respectable representation of minority actors on its prime-time lineup--the big issue at this summer's TV press tour.
It's also the only broadcast network with new shows featuring actors old enough to rent a car--and that's sure to play well with this fortysomething crowd, which had been left feeling a bit like chaperons at earlier press tour "talent" parties thrown by UPN, WB and Fox.
Moonves took pains to distinguish CBS from the other broadcasters on the subject of minority casting. He took issue with NAACP President Kweisi Mfume for including CBS in his recent condemnation of the networks for underrepresenting minorities and says he has called for a meeting with him.
"We do not think it's fair that the network that is the prime-time host of Bill Cosby--two times--Della Reese, Cheech Marin, Arsenio Hall and Sammo Hung be accused of not recognizing the minority audience," Moonves told reporters here.
He also ticked off CBS's other minority on-air talent: football announcer Greg Gumbel, soon-to-be morning news anchor Bryant Gumbel and "60 Minutes" correspondents Ed Bradley and Vicki Mabrey.
"CBS stands alone as the number one network aware of its responsibility in this arena," Moonves proclaimed.
He forgot to mention the network's midseason doc drama from Steven Bochco, "City of Angels," which will feature a cast largely made up of African Americans and Latinos. He also neglected to bring up--perhaps by design--the network's summer series "Thanks," a very broad comedy about the Europeans who arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620. (Although when questioned, Moonves said it would portray Native Americans as "no more foolish" than the Pilgrims--"and that's by intent.")
Reporters tried to draw him out on the minority-casting issue with a barrage of questions about whether Madison Avenue dictates prime-time casting by "indexing," or paying bigger bucks for shows that reach a higher income bracket (translation: white viewers).
But Moonves wasn't about to bite.
"NBC is the one that makes a lot about the indexing; why don't you hold that for Scott Sassa in a couple of days?" he said with a chuckle, referring to NBC's West Coast president.
Even without Moonves' prompting, this crowd is expected to grill Sassa, who stood before the press in January and promised more diverse casting--which his network then failed to deliver.
Moonves also roiled the waters for ABC before its press session later in the week. That network's parent company, Disney, recently announced that its Touchstone Television production unit would be merged into ABC.
"If any network expects to get a show from that company, they're out of their minds," Moonves said. So, too, he said, is any outside program supplier that goes to ABC with a pitch: "So anybody on the outside who has a program, there's only two places they should call--that's us and NBC, and we're much nicer than they are, so they should come to us first."
Moonves practically dared the critics to take issue with his decision to pick up the mob drama "Falcone" for midseason, just weeks after proclaiming the series too violent for CBS's fall schedule.
"The success of 'Sopranos' certainly has influenced our desire to put this show on the air," he told reporters, who just two days earlier had officially proclaimed that HBO is offering the best drama series of the year, the best new show of the year and the best overall program of the year. Which makes it kinda tough for them to criticize Moonves' new show for its violent content.
The critics' "Sopranos" love fest had come just one day after the show was showered with 16 Emmy nominations, which Moonves also noted.
"The lead character is a murderer and the show garners more Emmy nominations than any show on television--we can't live by a double standard," he warned.
Ellen DeGeneres is looking to get back into the series-TV game. The stand-up comedian turned actress turned gay rights activist is about to close a deal with CBS for a series that Moonves describes as "The Larry Sanders Show" meets "The Carol Burnett Show." DeGeneres would star as the host of a variety show on the half-hour series, which probably won't appear any sooner than next fall.
She caused a press ruckus a couple of seasons back when she decided to out her TV character and come out in real life as well; she later accused ABC of trying to kill her show--which it eventually canceled--because of her character's sexual orientation.