Les Moonves Biography

Co-President and Co-Chief Operating Officer of Viacom, Inc.

Born October 6, 1949, in New York; married Nancy Wiesenfeld (an actress); children: three. Education: Earned degree from Bucknell University, 1971; took acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York City.


Office —Viacom, 1515 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.


Actor and bartender in New York City, c. 1972–77, and in Los Angeles, CA, 1977–79; made guest appearances in the television shows The Six Million Dollar Man and Cannon ; producer of plays in Los Angeles, including The Hasty Heart ; worked in development for Saul Ilson Productions, a part of Columbia Pictures Television, c. 1979–81; worked for Twentieth Century Fox in its movies and miniseries development department after 1981; became head miniseries production, 1983; development executive, Lorimar Television, 1984–86, head of creative affairs, 1988, president, 1989; president, Warner Bros. Television, after 1991; became president of entertainment, CBS Television, July, 1995; became president of CBS Television, August, 1997; became chair and chief executive officer, April, 1998; named head of UPN by Viacom, CBS's parent company, 2002; named co-president and co-chief operating officer, Viacom Inc., 2004.

Les Moonves


Les Moonves has been deemed the network television executive responsible for bringing Survivor and the reality–TV craze that followed to the airwaves. As chair and chief executive officer of the CBS Television network, this tanned, affable, former actor known as "Mr. Hollywood" in entertainment circles is regularly ranked as one of the most powerful people in show business. Moonves came aboard at CBS at a time when the once–dominant broadcaster was suffering from low ratings, a paucity of new hit shows, and general industry ridicule. In the space of a few short years, he became the force credited with "resuscitating it from cobwebbed irrelevance and reasserting its dominance through a combination of classically mainstream hits," noted New York Observer reporter Jason Gay. "Along the way, Mr. Moonves has also revived the faded concept of the single–headed entertainment empire.… For better and for worse, he's become indistinguishable from his network, and his network has become indistinguishable from him."

Born in 1949, Moonves grew up in Valley Stream, a community in Long Island's Nassau County. His father owned gas stations in the New York City area, and Moonves recalled "Saturday mornings: getting up with him in the middle of winter in Long Island, driving into Brooklyn," he told Variety writers Josef Adalian and Michael Schneider. "I hated it. I said, 'This sucks.' My father didn't mind, and he made a good living, but that wasn't what I wanted." Instead, Moonves planned on becoming a doctor, and spent four years at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in its pre–med curriculum. By the time he graduated in 1971, however, he had changed his mind and decided to move to New York City to become an actor. "Needless to say, my parents were a little upset," he admitted a 1990 interview that appeared in Broadcasting.

For the next six years, Moonves lived in Greenwich Village, took acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and supported himself as a bartender at the famed Tavern on the Green restaurant. He wed a fellow thespian, Nancy Wiesenfeld, and the two moved to Los Angeles in 1977. Forced to bartend there as well to earn a living, Moonves had a difficult time finding work outside of an occasional thug role on television series like The Six Million Dollar Man and Cannon, but he found his way into producing plays in small venues around town. "I finally realized that as an actor you're sort of dependent on other people to take care of your career," he told Broadcasting, "and I didn't like that."

Moonves produced a winner with The Hasty Heart, a drama that went on to enjoy a successful run at the Ahmanson Theater and even won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award. The coup helped him land a job with a production company on the Columbia Pictures Television lot, where he worked in comedy development. Less than a year later, he moved over to Twentieth Century Fox, working in TV–movie development. In 1984 he went to work at Lorimar Television, one of the most successful small–screen content providers of the era. There, Moonves brought miniseries like The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, based on the Dominick Dunne book, and the Emmy–nominated I Know My First Name Is Steven to the screen in the late 1980s, and also became head of series production in 1986, which entailed supervising such hit shows as Dallas, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest. In 1988, he was named head of creative affairs, and given the president's chair the next year.

Moonves' career took off in earnest when Lorimar merged with a Warner–empire business in 1991 to become Warner Bros. Television. WBTV was a well–funded entity with access to some of the best creative minds in Hollywood, and under Moonves' guidance produced a slew of hit shows for all of the networks. He placed some 20 hit shows on the 1995–96 fall schedule alone, including Friends and ER, but before that season started, Moonves was lured to CBS to take over as the network's entertainment–division president.

At the time, CBS was in last place among the three major broadcast networks. It had been "the network that both created and defined television," noted Nancy Hass in Los Angeles Magazine, and "the most influential network in history.… NBC and ABC were pale reflections that only set off CBS's originality, its sense of purpose, its credibility." That reputation was severely tarnished by the mid–1990s, however. A decade earlier, its chief, Laurence Tisch, had taken over and made a slew of profit–focused decisions that essentially gutted the network. It missed out on the cable boom, lost the National Football League (NFL) broadcast contract to the upstart Fox network—and with it eight big–city affiliate stations—and failed to launch any promising new series. In the ratings game, it was the most–watched network in rural households in the United States, with a programming slate heavy with shows that appealed to older viewers, such as Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman ; the Candace Bergen sitcom Murphy Brown was its sole across–the–board hit. CBS was roundly derided as the "geezer" network when Moonves took over, despite a recent attempt to lure a younger, hip audience with shows like Central Park West. Its ratings for the fall 1995 season were abysmal.

"For the first eight months of this job I woke up every morning thinking, 'God, what have I done?,'" Moonves told Hass in the Los Angeles Magazine interview. Yet the well–liked executive with a solid track record was given free rein, and immediately began contacting teams of writers and producers to come up with new ideas. One result was Everybody Loves Raymond, a retro–style sitcom about a married couple and their in–laws that debuted in the fall of 1996. Critics largely ignored it, but the show caught on with viewers despite a tough Friday–night time slot, and within a few years it was racking up Emmy nominations. Named president of CBS Television in August of 1997, Moonves went on to engineer a deal that brought the NFL back to the network, which returned the all–important opportunity to promote new CBS shows to a younger audience. In early 1998, CBS came in first in the February sweeps for the first time since 1995, boosted by its broadcast of the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. A few months later, Moonves was made president and chief executive officer of CBS, which gave him more input into the news division, once the crown jewel of the network. He was responsible for a weeknight version of the CBS staple, 60 Minutes II, and greenlighted the fall 1999 debut of Judging Amy, another popular Emmy–winning series.

Moonves nearly missed out on what would prove to be the network's turnaround show: Survivor. The show belonged to a new wave of reality–TV shows, borrowed in part from European hits. Survivor grouped several strangers on a deserted island and forced them to participate in various tests of strength, endurance, and meals of stomach–turning cuisine. Each week, the participants voted someone off the island. Once it debuted in May of 2000, the characters quickly became household names and the show added new viewers every week, until 58 million viewers tuned in for the first–season finale. Moonves had initially been skeptical about the show, as he told Broadcasting & Cable reporter Paige Albiniak. "The first two times I heard it pitched to me, I almost threw [CBS's head of alternative programming] Ghen Maynard out of my office. I told him, 'This is CBS; this isn't some cable network.' But Ghen had the fortitude to keep pushing me."

Moonves and the network scored another hit later that year with the debut of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and it was his decision to move the popular drama and the subsequent Survivor sequels to Thursday night, in order to battle it out in the ratings with NBC. It was a risky maneuver, forcing the shows to compete against both Friends and Will & Grace and, moreover, to challenge NBC's longstanding lead in the Thursday–night ratings race—but the CBS shows began beating the competition. "That changed the face of the network," Moonves told Gay in the New York Observer article, though he admitted it was a daring move. "We could have been destroyed."

The turnaround that Moonves achieved at CBS was so impressive that the entertainment–industry bible Variety named him "Showman of the Year" in 2000, and he began topping Entertainment Weekly 's annual "Suits" Power List that year as well. He became so well–known that David Letterman even began knocking him on his late–night CBS show. Irate at one point, Moonves reportedly walked over from his CBS offices to Letterman's in the Ed Sullivan Theater and the two had an unfruitful meeting that resulted in Letterman ribbing his boss further with a Top Ten list, "Things Overheard at a Meeting with Les Moonves."

In early 2002, Viacom, CBS's parent company, named Moonves head of the ailing UPN, a money–losing property that had bled $1 billion since 1995. The added duty made Moonves the first executive in history to run two networks. "I did sort of sit back the day after it happened and say, 'This is pretty amazing,'" he told Broadcasting & Cable 's Joe Schlosser. "But you don't look at history while on the job. There are days when I sit back and say, 'Who was great in this business?'" He named several legendary broadcast visionaries, including the late Brandon Tartikoff, who brought NBC to dominance in the 1980s, and Grant Tinker, creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show. "I guess the answer is that none of them had this opportunity to play on two playing fields with very different demographics," Moonves reflected. "I think I would like to be remembered for running successful networks, not running two networks."

In 2002, CBS attained the number–one spot for total viewership, and was much closer to NBC than ever before in the crucial 18–to–49 age group. It was a solidly profit–earning network as well, and by this point Moonves' kingdom included all CBS programming, including news and sports, the daily operations of UPN, some 39 television stations, and King World, the company that produces both Oprah and the Dr. Phil show. In 2003, CBS racked up a record seven Emmy awards, coming in second just after HBO. In a nod to his former career, Moonves occasionally steps in for guest appearances on television shows written or produced by his longtime friends. He has appeared on the sitcom The Nanny, the soap opera The Young and the Restless, and even the ABC drama The Practice. With his trademark raspy voice, quick wit, and charismatic personality, Moonves has become a entertainment industry legend, "a throwback to a time when TV executives were showmen, not suits," asserted Newsweek writer Johnnie L. Roberts.

The power Moonves wields was no match, however, for the "Boycott CBS" movement that gained momentum in the weeks before CBS's planned November sweeps miniseries, The Reagans, in 2003. Objecting to what it claimed was a liberal bias in the script, and dialogue described as fictitious and inflammatory, Republican and conservative political forces objected vehemently, and Moonves ordered it to be re–edited just weeks before its scheduled air date. When James Brolin and Judy Davis, the actors playing Ronald and Nancy Reagan, announced they would not assist in publicizing the edited version, Moonves cancelled the series. It ran on Showtime, a Viacom property, instead.

Moonves is a distant relative of David Ben–Gurion, founder of the modern Israeli state, via a 1917 marriage on his father's side of the family. His wife, Nancy, made several appearances on the hit show Beverly Hills 90210, and they are the parents of three, including Sara Moonves, who played Terri on Full House in the early 1990s. Reflecting on what a show business–involved family he has, Moonves recalled in a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service interview with Gail Shister that his daughter brought him an early morning fax with the overnight Nielsen ratings and told him, "Dad, you did terrible last night."

On June 1, 2004, Moonves, along with MTV chairman and chief executive officer Tom Freston, was named co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, Inc., the parent company of MTV and CBS. Outgoing Viacom chairman and chief executive officer Sumner Redstone said that he expects one of them to replace him when he leaves, which, he says, will be sometime in the next three years.


Broadcasting, July 16, 1990, p. 111; October 22, 1990, p. 50.

Broadcasting & Cable, January 21, 2002, p. 26; September 29, 2003, p. 1.

Electronic Media, July 28, 1997, p. 1; March 26, 2001, p. 10.

Entertainment Weekly, February 13, 1998, p. 32; October 24, 2003, p. 26.

Fortune, February 4, 2002, p. 28.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 15, 1996.

Los Angeles Magazine, September 1996, p. 68.

Mediaweek, June 12, 1995, p. 5; October 30, 2000, p. 46.

Newsweek, November 19, 2001, p. 60.

New York Observer, May 19, 2003, p. 1.

New York Times, November 5, 2003.

TelevisionWeek, March 17, 2003, p. 3; April 21, 2003, p. 4.

Variety, April 13, 1998, p. 17; August 28, 2000, p. 63, p. 71.


"Viacom: Farewell, Mel," CNN Money, http://money.cnn.com/2004/06/01/news/fortune500/Karmazin/index.htm (June 3, 2004).

Carol Brennan

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