CBS Chief Bets Rep on ... Ashton?

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Byline: Joanne Lipman; Lipman is a media adviser and NEWSWEEK's C-Suite Columnist.

Spotlight is on Les Moonves as a revamped 'Two and a Half Men' premieres.

CBS Corp. Chief executive Leslie Moonves has more than 20,000 people working for him, but right now his fortunes are riding on just one: Ashton Kutcher.

Moonves personally championed Kutcher as a replacement for Charlie Sheen on the network's biggest hit, Two and a Half Men. Now, as the newly revamped show premieres this week, Moonves will get credit--or blame--for the fate of the network's comedy crown jewel.

It's a massive bet, and one that has left many in Hollywood scratching their heads. Even the show's creator, Chuck Lorre, said recently that Kutcher, the amiable but lightweight actor best known as Demi Moore's husband, wasn't his first choice; he wanted someone older. The idea came instead from Moonves and his team.

Settling into an armchair in his massive 35th-floor Manhattan office, Moonves promises patience, saying regardless of how the show performs, he will give it time to find its legs. "No way" would he yank it midseason, he says.

Moonves is throwing his own credibility behind the retooled sitcom. He says the show's much-hyped premiere commanded a big premium from advertisers; while he won't give specifics, industry sources say CBS asked for at least $750,000, compared with the $200,000 for a 30-second spot the show brought in last year. But "after that, it will depend purely on the ratings. If it isn't as successful as people thought, it will be less." He is quick to add: "I don't expect it [ratings] to fall off precipitously. I don't think that's something that's in the cards. We're feeling good about it."

After Sheen imploded in a burst of drug-fueled episodes in February, it wasn't clear that the show would survive at all. Various middle-aged actors were bandied about as potential replacements for the 46-year-old Sheen--among them Hugh Grant, Matt Dillon, and Rob Lowe. Ultimately, Moonves and CBS decided on the 33-year-old Kutcher, whose social-networking prowess--he has more than 7 million Twitter followers--made him appealing. His reported $700,000 per episode, according to TV Guide's latest salary rankings, makes him the highest-paid sitcom star, though he'll earn less than the $1. …