If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: Thank God for Les Moonves. Just as press tour's big reality-cloning controversy was beginning to lose steam, Viacom's iron-fisted dictator stepped in late last week and fired two disgruntled CSI cast members amid a contract dispute. The move not only gave critics something to buzz about besides dueling boxing shows and crappy elevator service, but it ensured that CBS's press-tour debut on Sunday would be Must-See TCA. Of course, I would have showed up no matter what — if only to get Moonves to explain how the wretched John Goodman sitcom Center of the Universe made it onto the network's fall lineup. And to thank him for the Snapple, of course.EXECUTIVE SESSION
9:11 am CBS kicks things off on a defiant note by replaying a controversial short film it produced for last May's Upfront in which a cab taking Moonves to Carnegie Hall mows down Donald Trump, sending the Apprentice star into the air. Trump has said publicly he found the clip offensive and in bad taste. Moonves clearly doesn't care.
9:16 Moonves takes to the stage and announces that "we're gonna brag a little bit." That can only mean one thing: lots of chatter about how the network finished No. 1 this season in total viewers, adults 25-54 and (almost) 18-49.
9:17 While continuing to brag, Moonves reminds us that, at the end of the day, "It's the programming, stupid." Note to self: Start prepping that Center of the Universe question.
9:20 More bragging.
9:25 Moonves introduces his sidekick, CBS entertainment president Nancy Tellem, who, well, starts bragging.
9:26 Tellem refers to CBS's "strong freshman class" of comedies and dramas. Note to self: Continue prepping that Center of the Universe question.
9:29 Scoop! Tellem announces that CBS will premiere its new fall schedule the week of Sept. 20. Survivor: Vanuatu, however, arrives a few days earlier, on Sept. 16.
9:30 The Q&A portion starts and... the first question has nothing to do with the CSI crisis. I'll fix that.
9:32 "A year ago at this time, Brad Garrett showed up for work a month late and was rewarded with a significant raise," I begin. "And last week, George Eads and Jorja Fox were late on their first day and fired for it... " Moonves interrupts me right here: "No, you're wrong. They didn't show up at all." Details, shmetails... Regardless, I ask him to explain "how these two situations are different."
9:32:30 "First of all, it wasn't a month later. It was a few days late that Brad Garrett didn't show up." (Note to self: Check into this. I'm pretty sure it was at least three weeks.) "We did a negotiation [with Garrett]," Moonves continues. "We brought him back into the fold. We were having discussions with lawyers [for Eads and Fox], and there were certain veiled threats [made] about their not showing up... I'm sort of old-fashioned: I believe when you and I shake hands and we sign a deal, it's a deal. By the way, what has not been reported is that we did offer them a raise, even though we didn't have to."
9:36 Regarding the much-ballyhooed clone wars between NBC and Fox, Moonves says, "You know what's great? There's a controversy that CBS is not in the middle of. I hope they all kill each other."
9:39 Moonves risks the wrath of Mark Burnett when he insinuates that The Apprentice is essentially a rip-off of Survivor. "Don't print this, but there are some who say Jeff Probst and Donald Trump are doing the same job," he tells the crowd. "'The tribe has spoken' and 'You're fired' are the same [catch phrase]."
9:40 In discussing CBS's plans for Everybody Loves Raymond's upcoming swan song, Tellem coins a new word: "eventize." Sample usage: "We're going to 'eventize' the entire season," or, "I just made up a word — 'eventize.'"
9:42 Moonves says CSI producers have not yet found replacements for Eads and Fox, but insists, "We're talking to certain people."
9:44 "Clearly, he showed that he is a little worried about the CSI franchise by those remarks," says Moonves of Dick Wolf's assertion last week that CSI is merely a "franchise" while Law & Order is a "brand." Moonves goes on to predict that CSI: New York is "not going to beat Law & Order" when the two shows face off on Wednesday nights this fall. "However," he adds, "CSI: New York is going to do better than we've done in that time period in decades."
9:46 "It's obviously a very fluid situation," Tellem says of actor Tom Sizemore's involvement in the new Rob Lowe drama Dr. Vegas. (Last October, Sizemore received a six-month jail sentence for stalking ex-girlfriend Heidi Fleiss.) "We were aware of his situation before we cast him."
9:48 Okay, my Center of the Universe question is fully prepped. I ask Moonves and Tellem whether they're happy with the quality of the sitcom, which makes a complete waste of such talent as Goodman, Jean Smart, Ed Asner and Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis. Wisely, Moonves defers to Tellem on this one. "We're pleased with the comedy," she says, inexplicably. "The cast is unbelievable. I don't know if you've seen it, but John Goodman, Jean Smart... the quality is top-rate." Oh, I've seen it — and I've got the empty Prozac bottles to prove it.
9:49 When asked whether The Reagans' seven Emmy nods was the Academy's way of punishing CBS for banishing the miniseries to Showtime, Moonves, says, "I always believed if you want to send a message, go to Western Union." Wow, that's... not funny at all — and he knows it. "It may be a non sequitur, but whatever." Nice save.
9:49:30 Moonves refuses to comment on the possibility that Eads and Fox may end up coming back to CSI after the dust settles. Translation: The possibility exists, big time.
9:50 Moonves is speechless! He's stumped when asked why Tom Sizemore is allowed to stay on the air yet Martha Stewart — whose conviction prompted Viacom to pull her syndicated series from its TV stations — is not. "I don't know how to answer that question," he confesses. "Maybe they'll do a show together." Again, nice save.
9:53 "We're going to tell you things you never heard about Elvis," Moonves says of the upcoming CBS miniseries on the King. "And if it's too controversial, we're gonna send it to Showtime."
10:01 The session ends, and dozens of reporters rush the stage to get more quotes from Moonves. I decide to play it cool and gradually work my way up to the mob.
10:02 Once there, I push myself to the center and once again ask him if there's a chance Eads and Fox could return. "I'm not commenting on that," he repeats. "We're looking at other actors." They're so coming back, it's not even funny.
10:07 I look Moonves in the eyes and ask him man-to-man, reporter-to-media mogul, middleclassman-to-multimillionaire if he laughed after watching the Center of the Universe pilot. "Obviously, you didn't like the pilot," he fires back. "I'm not going to comment on that. You asked Nancy the question.... I liked the show. It's a great companion to The King of Queens, and it was our highest-testing pilot in about three years. Higher-testing than Two and a Half Men." Notice how he never said he laughed?
10:09 Scoop! "Our relationship, I can honestly say, has never, ever been better," Moonves says of his "rival" David Letterman. "It's never been as close to being this good. He actually writes me notes now, which are nice, about [the Late Show segment] 'More with Les.' "It's more personal than it's ever been before. I mean, we still don't go out and drink."CSI: NEW YORK (debuts Sept. 22)10:33 Exec producer (and CSI creator) Anthony Zuiker refuses to slam Dick Wolf for essentially dismissing CSI. Damn.
10:35 Zuiker says CSI: NY will be "more character-driven" than the other CSIs.
10:35 I swear costar Carmine Giovinazzo could be Ryan Seacrest's long-lost twin.
10:37 "I was saddened by the news," Zuiker says of Eads and Fox's firings from the original CSI. "[But] it is show business, and the show must go on."
10:53 Oooh, I've got a question to ask. Gimme that mic! "This is for the cast," I announce. "Let's say, hypothetically, that you're a couple of years into your contract... " The crowd, sensing where I'm going with this, starts to laugh. "... and you're no longer happy with the money you're making. Would you still honor your contract, or would you consider not showing up for work?"
10:53:30 Before anyone can answer, Zuiker chimes in and says, "We should keep this about CSI: NY. I respect the question, but let's keep it about CSI: NY, could we?" When I argue that "this is about CSI: NY," Zuiker gives newcomer Giovinazzo the okay to "take a stab at it." "The reaction I had to that," he says, "was I'd shine Moonves's shoes and caddy for him every weekend if I was making that much money. I hope I'm not stepping on... biting my tongue here." We'll know for sure five years from now.WRITING BREAK11:30 Garrett was absent from the Raymond set last summer from Aug. 11-26 — or roughly two weeks. I hate to say "I told ya so," so, instead, I'll say, "I think we both exaggerated a teensy bit for dramatic effect." DR. VEGAS2:07 pm While watching clips of Rob Lowe's latest star vehicle, I'm reminded of how I so don't buy the ex-Brat Packer as a doctor.
2:09 The cast is introduced, and not only is Tom Sizemore MIA, but so is leading lady Amy Adams (Catch Me if You Can). This can't be good.
2:09:30 Is Rob Lowe wearing a beret or is he proudly going gray? I need to move closer for the next session.
2:10 We interrupt this lull in the Dr. Vegas session to bring you a brief recap of Fox's second (and much-abbreviated) press-tour day on Friday: 9:59 The O.C. briefing ends, and it hits me — everyone on the 10-person panel was asked a question except Mischa Barton, who sat there for the entire hour probably thinking, "I missed acting camp for this?!" Now, back to our regularly scheduled session...
2:16 Exec producer Jack Orman is extremely vague about the status of Adams, whose name appears nowhere in the press materials. "She's going to be with the series in the beginning," he says. "At the moment, she's recurring." Note to self: Dig deeper — there's a story here.
2:17 Note to self: On second thought, don't bother digging deeper. I just remembered that I don't care either way.
2:20 Regarding Sizemore, Orman confirms that his presence on the show "is in flux."
2:22 Orman concedes that there "continue to be [logistical] challenges" shooting in Las Vegas. He also says portions of the pilot will be reshot.
2:35 So, to sum up the Dr. Vegas session: Yikes, this show has its work cut out for it.CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE3:06 Goodman gives the first indication that he has seen a final cut of this show when he essentially jokes that his career has gone completely down the toilet.
3:07 However, sitcom legend Ed Asner (Mary Tyler Moore Show) — who plays Goodman's Viagra-poppin' pa — gives the first indication that he hasn't when he says, "I don't think I've ever felt so high about a project." In related news, I don't think I've ever felt a stronger urge to remove the last three words of an actor's quote.
3:11 Olympia Dukakis gives the first indication that she has seen a final cut of this show when she says one of the primary reasons she took the gig was for "the money."
3:20 Designing Women's Jean Smart gives the first indication that she hasn't when she says, "If we can get enough people to watch this show, I can't believe they wouldn't come back."
3:15 Goodman gives the first indication that he's attending the same session as I am when he starts to fall asleep on stage.
3:20 And now today's "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" award for the question better suited for a fact-checker than a 12-year-old boy goes to (drumroll, please) the reporter who asked Universe's Spencer Breslin, "Who has more credits," him or his Raising Helen costar Dakota Fanning. That one's going to be tough to beat. Let's have a big round of applause for today's winner.
3:30 In the middle of slitting my wrists, I hear a reporter mention Center of the Universe in the same breath as the late, great Roseanne. I pause, take a deep breath and then proceed to cut deeper and faster.CLUBHOUSE (debuts Sept. 26)4:09 While introducing the panel for this heartfelt Aaron Spelling-produced, baseball-themed family drama, a CBS publicist announces that, "Unfortunately, Mr. Spelling could not be here today due to a dental emergency." I swear, sometimes these press-tour diaries just write themselves.
Coming up tomorrow: Day Two of CBS. Plus: Click here to read Stephen Battaglio's take on the CBS executive session.