Les Moonves, the head of CBS, is quite an irresistible figure.
The former actor and ultimate corporate insider, with his million-dollar suits and million-dollar smile, is still having fun in the media business -- perhaps the last guy having fun. This may be because he still believes in it, or because, like the greatest showmen, he knows that, if you give a good enough performance, everybody is happy to suspend disbelief.
Moonves, with deadpan righteousness -- and yet, obviously, with a twinkle in his eye -- is on a tear about the Dish Network's Hopper DVR, whose AutoHop feature, in a most minor advance, skips ads for you automatically. In addition to suing Dish, joined by the other major broadcasters, Moonves is also threatening to take CBS programs off of the satellite network.
It's lovely shocked-shocked bluster: Not watching ads! Un-American!
As it happens, a panoply of devices allow you to do just this, and have, if somewhat more stealthily, since the late 1990s. But pay no attention to actual technology.
In this contretemps, Moonves is matched against Dish chief Charlie Ergen, the ultimate corporate outsider, irascible, belligerent, and litigious, who, for years, has been locked in fractious battles with the networks over . . . well, most everything.
Ergen's reasonable defense is that all sentient people use technology to skip ads and that the Hopper DVR merely allows people to do it more efficiently.
Moonves, on his part, makes the baldly self-serving case that because advertising is what supports television shows, consumers are stealing if they don't watch the advertising. And anyone who helps them avoid the advertising is aiding and abetting this crime.
In fact, defying any obvious logic, advertisers continue to flood into network television, with ever more expensively produced commercials. They do this despite the fact that audiences have shrunk by more than half, and that only the most passive potatoes actually sit through a commercial, and that, more and more, television shows are consumed via distribution channels without advertising.
Almost everybody in the media business has, for almost half a generation, expected the nation's media buyers and chief marketing officers to wake up one morning and say this is nuts.
Much of the value in digital entertainment and information companies is predicated on the expectation that this will happen -- that the $60 billion in advertising that goes to television will soon be more equitably distributed.
But it hasn't happened.
Advertising, at least big-budget big-margin brand advertising, the profit machine of the media business, has not followed the American audience -- television has been, quite astoundingly, quite unaffected by digital growth. Big brands have stubbornly stuck with television -- network television at that.
Moonves may understand why. Everybody is happy to pretend that their world has not ended, at least if you offer them the opportunity to pretend. By suing Dish, Moonves is offering one more pretense that there are still people frozen on their couches -- and Les Moonves is not going to let Charlie Ergen free them!
In a sense, Moonves himself is a pretend figure out of television's past. He represents the ease, the charm and showmanship of the great days of television.