Moonves: TV in golden age despite online disruptors

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CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves said Tuesday that entertainment, sports and news content is still king, despite the new ways many people are consuming it, including online mobile devices.

This is the "golden age" of television in the sense that people can pick out 10 great shows they watch, Moonves told CNBC's "Squawk Box" in a wide-ranging interview about the future of media, along with Discovery CEO David Zaslav and IAC/InterActive Chairman Barry Diller.

"Great content, great stories, [and] great characters are still what people are passionate about," agreed Zaslav. Before his eight years leading Discovery, he was at CNBC parent NBCUniversal for nearly two decades.

"Essentially content is not going to look that different than 20 years ago. 'Hill Street Blues' could work today. 'CSI' could work 20 years from now," Moonves said. The difference, he added, "you're not going to care where you get it from."

Diller, the billionaire former head of Paramount Pictures, Fox, and QVC, echoed those sentiments. "Over time ... I don't think there will be anything called broadcast television or cable television. There will be brands ... or there will be programs."

But he took it a step further saying: "The whole concept of linear TV ... it's so much yesterday. ... All this noise is going to disappear." The new business model is going to be a la carte subscription, he added. "You pay for what you actually like" rather than a massive channel bundle.

Internet-delivered pay services such as Netflix, Amazon, AppleTV, and Hulu have also become a popular way to watch network content.

But Zaslav called mobile devices "dumb pipes" without the right content. "If you had your Apple device and couldn't get the music and the content you love you wouldn't love the device."

Acknowledging that original programming from Netflix and Amazon certainly competes with CBS and the company's premium movie channel Showtime, Moonves said: "Everyone in our ecosystem [is] a friend and a competitor."

"Technology is only the friend of content. Technology tries to be disruptive. Generally speaking, it isn't," he said. "The DVR was going to kill our business. It doesn't. It increased it."

As for dealing with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, he said: "We have made over $2 billion in four years from those services."

While syndicating the same network shows to cable channels becomes less valuable, he added: "The amount of money you make on the other side more than makes up for it."

In the not-too-distant future, Diller said, there won't be the current silos of broadcast, cable and Internet delivery because it's all going to be sent via a data pipe, basically broadband.

A causality of this new "creative destruction," he believes, is the concept of the evening news. It's no longer relevant, he contended but added that local news has staying power because there's no better way to deliver that content than on television.

Moonves said news is about a break-even venture, with an aging demographic on television. But he said it's an essential pillar of the network offering.

All three media moguls agreed about the power of sports programming, with Moonves saying the NFL is still a must have for television, even as the league charges more and more for the rights. "People can't live without the NFL on Sunday."

Diller blamed Walt Disney-owned ESPN for the "false economy" in sports rights, with 100 million subscribers subsidizing a much lower actual viewership of the sports channel.

Discovery is making its sports play in Europe. In July, it bought the rest of Eurosport it didn't already own for more than $500 million. Zaslav said the diversity of cultures in Europe allow for more niche interest in sports beyond soccer.

Disclosure: CBS is a competitor to NBCUniversal, which along with CNBC, is owned by Comcast.