LOS ANGELES – This is what the top of the heap looks like.
Facing a roomful of TV critics Monday, CBS president and CEO Les Moonves was confident and playfully direct, touting his network's success in attracting young viewers, offering some of TV's most-watched series in NCIS and Big Bang Theory and sparking some of the most recent trends, with the success of its Under the Dome series.
The big news: Dome returns next summer, officially becoming a returning series. Horror novel master Stephen King, author of the book on which the show is based, will write the first episode of that new season (presumably, that means the dome won't be vanishing this season; sorry for the spoiler, fans).
Otherwise, Moonves, right, met critics' questions with the self-assurance you would expect from a guy who answers to almost no one, a refreshing quality in the age of media conglomerates where even network bosses may have two or three bosses.
"We make money. We have the highest rated (shows). What more do you want?" he said shortly after his press conference. "I think we're playing our hand pretty well."
What about the racist comments made by some contestants in the Big Brother house recently? "I find some of the behavior absolutely appalling, personally," Moonves said. "What you see there, I think it, unfortunately, is reflective of how certain people feel in America. It's what our show is. I think we've handled it properly."
What would you say to fans who have mounted an Internet campaign to keep NCIS star Cote de Pablo on the show? "We offered Cote de Pablo a lot of money, and then we offered her even more money because we really didn't want to lose her," Moonves said. "We feel like we exhausted every opportunity, and she just decided she didn't want to do the show."
Can you keep people under a dome on a TV show season after season without exhausting the audience's patience? "Why can't they be under the dome for a long period of time?" Moonves said in mock exasperation. "This is television."
Years ago, Moonves was the charismatic Pied Piper of the press tour, leading a trail of critics attracted by his showman's spirit and direct savvy. Though he hadn't spoken for CBS at the TV Critics Association's press tour in a long while, he stepped in for the network's entertainment president Nina Tassler, who was attending the funeral of a friend.
Along the way, critics got a crash course on how the CEO of the most successful broadcast network sees the business, touting $1.2 billion in international sales and noting that hit series now draw 20 million viewers from several places. "Since I've been in the network television business, which is over 30 years, people have been saying, 'Oh, the (business) model is dead,' " said Moonves. "The model's never been dead. It's just evolving."
Still, CBS' schedule of new comedies hasn't done much to repair network TV's quality problem, with Robin Williams' lackluster new comedy with Sarah Michelle Gellar as a daughter/father running an advertising firm, The Crazy Ones, as exhibit A.
On Monday, Williams ran through a rapid-fire succession of improvised jokes, from suggesting he was sexting Anthony Weiner to speaking in a Russian accent, showing that his high-wire shtick can fall flat with the wrong audience, exposing his show's weakest link.
"These days, you make a Anthony Weiner joke and it's just been a few days, people are already (saying) 'That's old news,' " Williams said after his press conference. "So it's a tough environment. Andy Warhol once said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. But now, everyone will be a network for 15 minutes. So have at it."