CBS don Leslie Moonves says he fired "CSI" cast members George Eads and Jorja Fox because "there comes a point where we feel a contract is a contract."

That point apparently came some time after the network caved last season when "Everybody Loves Raymond" second-banana Brad Garrett did not show up to work for a few days and was rewarded with a significant pay increase.

Like Garrett last year, Eads and Fox tried last week to extract more money for their work on one of CBS's most important programs by not showing up for work when the show went back into production for the fall season. Grievously, the two "CSI" players had not first checked to see whether, like Garrett, they were on CBS's Irreplaceable Actors List. Grievously, it seems that they were not.

Addressing critics Sunday at Summer TV Press Tour 2004, Moonves, who oversees CBS in his capacity as co-president and co-COO of CBS parent Viacom, danced around the comparison between Garrett's stunt and that of Eads and Fox. "We did a negotiation," he said of Garrett. "We brought him back into the fold. We are very happy we did."

Skipping work to extract more money is a time-honored tradition among thespians toiling in the television industry. Remember the cast of "The West Wing"?

"There comes a point where we feel a contract is a contract," Moonves said. "We had been having discussions with [Eads's and Fox's] lawyers. There were certain veiled threats about their not showing up. And there comes a point where we all have to look out for the future of the network television business." Here's probably a good place to mention that Moonves is one of two announced candidates to replace Sumner Redstone as CEO of Viacom.

Moonves would not say whether talks continue with the two sacked actors; he did say that they were looking at other actors, and that roles of some other "CSI" cast members might be beefed up to fill the void. Production on "CSI" will be halted for one week, he said.

Moonves also told critics that CBS had renegotiated the actors' contracts after "CSI's" second season, and had offered them a pay raise for the coming season, which will be the show's fifth. According to the trade paper Variety, which first reported the firings, the two actors were making $100,000 per episode. A rep for both actors could not be reached at press time.

"When somebody doesn't show up for work, that says they don't want to work for us," Moonves said.

(After Moonves' session, one critic asked Carmine Giovinazzo, a cast member on the latest "CSI" spinoff "CSI: New York," whether in two seasons he might try a work-stoppage stunt. Giovinazzo said that if he were making the kind of money Eads and Fox were making, he would instead be shining Moonves' shoes and caddying for him.)

Though he does not have a dog in the fight, Moonves was asked his thoughts on claims by NBC and ABC that Fox has pirated their reality series -- "The Contender" and "Wife Swap," respectively -- by slapping a Fox rip-off on the air before the original debuts.

"I hope they all kill each other," Moonves said with a chuckle.

He blamed the legal system, reminding critics that CBS lost when it took ABC to court, claiming that ABC's "I'm a Celebrity; Get Me Out of Here" was a rip-off of CBS's "Survivor."

"Once the courts said we didn't have a case, it became the Wild West," Moonves said.

On the other hand, he noted, "Let he who is without sin . . . whatever that thing is, like George Bush: 'fool me once' and then -- right, anyway, throw the stones, in other words."

Ah ha.

"This isn't a clean game that's played here," Moonves said, back on track. "Those faint of heart should go find another line of work."

Moonves was stumped when one critic asked why it was okay for Viacom-owned CBS to cast Tom Sizemore on the new CBS drama "Dr. Vegas," given that Sizemore in October was sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation for abusing ex-girlfriend Heidi Fleiss, while Viacom canceled Martha Stewart's syndicated show after she was convicted of lying to investigators about a suspicious stock trade.

"I don't know how to answer that question," said Moonves, who oversees both CBS and the Viacom division that syndicated Stewart's show.

"I don't know what to say. Maybe they'll do a show together."

Moonves was asked whether he thought the seven Primetime Emmy nominations bestowed on the telefilm "The Reagans" was the TV Academy's way of sending him a message about having caved in to GOP pressure and scrubbing the project shortly before CBS was scheduled to air it. ("The Reagans" finally wound up on the Viacom-owned pay cable network Showtime.)

"I never thought of it that way, but, to quote Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, go to Western Union," Moonves responded.

"I'm not sure I'm clear on that," said the critic who had first asked the "Reagans" question, but who was speaking on behalf of every critic there, for sure.

"That was an old saying, for those of you who don't get it," Moonves said patiently.

"Samuel Goldwyn, he said, if I wanted to do a message movie, you know, blah, blah blah, blah, go to Western Union."

"CSI" stars Jorja Fox and George Eads were partying in Vegas in December, but may no longer be smiling after being sacked by CBS.