@ Media Summit: CBS’ Moonves: We Still Like Hulu, But We’ll Continue Going It Alone – For Now

As a self-described “old TV guy,” Les Moonves, president and CEO, CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS), probably has some personal reasons to feel mildly defensive when he’s repeatedly asked about the network’s older audience demos. During his opening keynote at the McGraw-Hill Media Summit, he sought to deal with that issue in a wide-ranging talk with BusinessWeek editor Stephen Adler that drew on the economic downturn, digital media revenues, his continued admiration for NBC Universal/News Corp.’s (NYSE: NWS) online video venture Hulu and CBS’ cautious acquisitions strategy.

Old media: Moonves and Adler engaged in some good natured – mostly – sparring over age-ism and advertising. “From the time I came to CBS in 1985, we have skewed older. We’re dealing with the fact that advertisers demand 18- to 34-year-old upscale viewers. There are no upscale 18- to 34-year-olds – except my children. And they have to ask me for money. It’s a bullsh*t demographic category. We sell over half our advertising to a 25-54 demo. Older people need more medicine and so, pharmaceutical advertisers are attracted to shows like 60 Minutes. It’s a system we’re trying to change. The boomer is still where the money is.”

Reliance on ads: “Our business is over 70 percent ad supported. We make adjustments to reflect the economy. There are cutbacks in personnel, changes in cost structure. Some say the content business is recession proof. I don’t buy that, but it is less affected. Disney (NYSE: DIS) is mostly theme parks. When you examine it closely, we’re not down terribly. Autos, retail are down, pharma is up. We’re not going to do badly.”

Online additives: “Marketers convention wisdom is that ads on internet will take away from other media. Hasn’t happened yet. Mostly print and radio will be affected Our online revenues are north of $200 million, growing 30 to 40 percent. It’s not affecting TV. It’s not subtractive, it’s additive. Most advertisers want to participate in both.” Lots more on acquisitions and other topics in extended entry…

Acquisitions: “We have a couple billion in cash, our capital structure is such that we’ve increased our dividend four or five times in the past year. The acquisition prices over the past year have been absurd and the people who bought those things might agree today. We would have liked Univision – Spanish market is improving and it has good management. Price was too high. Having this much cash and a low debt ratio there will be opportunities this year, more so than a year ago. Not for $15 billion – it’s too high for not a core business. Looking at content companies, new media companies. Wall St. gets nervous when we mention acquisitions – we made three acquisitions and they have been small. We will not do dilutive acquisitions. ”

On the Weather Channel: Would CBS be interested in owning the cable channe? Moonves: [The Whether Channel] is showing itself to everybody – and we’re one of them. It would fit like College Sports. So you sound pretty interested. As I said, we look at everything, but everybody – Time Warner (NYSE: TWX), Disney, – is kicking the tires.”

Web content: He repeated past comments on whether or not CBS would add its content to Hulu. “Our philosophy is not different from Hulu; through the CBS Audience Network, we aggregate content and syndicating it – we have over 200 websites from big sires like AOL to smaller ones like Bebo. We are selling advertising for those 200 sites. We think Hulu is a terrific idea and we still might join, but we decided that we can do it best on our own. We’re in the infancy of this thing. I’ve very excited about the CBS Audience Network. Now we have to monetize it.”

March Madness: We made a 13 year deal a three years back on the NCAA, competing with Fox at the time. One of our philosophies was that it may be tough to get money, but as the web takes off, it’ll work. Made $250k in revenue the first year; it rose then to $4 million and then $10 million. Now, this year, March Madness will give us $23 million in advertising, which fits into our philosophy: it’s content that we already have on TV, added to the internet. Except for the broadband costs, it’s all found money. Adler: USA Today reported that online activity during work hours cost business’s $3 billion a year. Moonves laugh-line: “If the United States government pays us $250 million, we’ll shut [March Madness online] down. We have the boss button that let’s you immediately close it down.”

LastFM: The internet is not just about repurposing TV shows. The company bought music recommender/internet radio site LastFM in March 2007 for $280 million. Moonves spoke about some of the general goals he has for the unit and why it’s taken so long to sell ads on it. “It’s mainly about creating communities around content. The most significant thing is that people talk about this music and we’ve just begun to sell ads around. the reason isn’t hasn’t gotten big more quickly is because it’s a London-based company – 75 percent of the traffic is international. We are much more domestic as a company and this was a good way to expand to other territories. With the dollar as bad as it is, our international businesses are doing very well. International revenues are 10 or 11 percent. I won’t give a number, but I would like to grow international to 20 percent. That’s just conjecture. I never said that before. Gil [Schwartz, EVP, communications], can I say that?”

Publishing: “Simon & Schuster grew 20 percent last year. Not bad for a dying business. We’re taking their 17,000 titles and digitizing it. If [Amazon’s (NSDQ: AMZN) eBook reader] Kindle takes off, all the better. But we believe in publishing as a great asset. It’s prestigious.”

Politics: Moonves’ contract ends in 2011: What will he do when his days at CBS are over? “Play golf – no, not really. I do believe in serving the public in some way. I don’t believe we have the best and brightest serving in Washinton.” Possibly a role in politics? He dances around the question, and after joking about what skeletons could be lurking in his closet, he said only: “I’ve had a great job in business and I’ve ben paid very well would like to give back.”