No other annual event on the media business calendar puts CBS chief Les Moonves more in his element than the network’s annual upfronts presentation at Carnegie Hall. This afternoon’s edition kicked off with him back in his usual groove. In this setting, he was able to glide past all of the corporate drama unfolding simultaneously in a Delaware courtroom in his battle with Shari Redstone and instead focus on total-viewer wins, the breakout of Young Sheldon, and next February’s Super Bowl.
Moonves on Wednesday first appeared 10 minutes into the show, in a spoof video with John Malkovich that made light of the upfront ritual but also slipped in an earnest montage of the CBS portfolio. He then took the stage, drawing a long standing ovation and roar from the crowd.
This all came about the same time the Delaware Chancery judge said he was granting CBS a one-day temporary restraining order, essentially putting the brakes on the fight between Moonves’ CBS and the Redstone-controlled National Amusements that could alter the CBS CEO’s future with the company.
“So. How’s your week been?” he cracked. “For years, I have told you that I will only be out here for a short time. This year, for the first time, I might mean it.” His remarks went on to extol “something bigger than me” — broadcast television. Two minutes later, he handed off to Kelly Kahl, who now runs CBS Entertainment.
The show began with a short instrumental performance by Jon Batiste and Stay Human, the house band for Late Night with Stephen Colbert. Jo Ann Ross, head of ad sales for CBS, followed with a combined video and stage spoof showcasing Young Sheldon.
Moonves had already been in a tense back-and-forth with Redstone, whose National Amusements (the company founded by her father, Sumner Redstone) is the controlling shareholder in both CBS and Viacom. The companies were under the same roof from 2000 to 2006, and ever since have operated like estranged siblings. They held merger talks in 2016, which were abandoned over price and issues of management control — the same problems that flared up this week when CBS filed suit in a Delaware court, seeking the TRO.
The company said it wanted to prevent National Amusements from interfering with a planned meeting on Thursday when CBS would vote to drastically slash NAI’s level of control from 79% to just 17%, based on an interpretation of the company’s by-laws. Then Redstone fired a missile back at CBS earlier today, announcing a change in the by-laws to require a super-majority of 90% to vote in favor of the reduction of NAI’s controlling stake. The net effect of all of these legal moves could be a swift exit by Moonves, though one lingering issue is likely to be what NAI termed his potential “golden parachute,” worth upwards of $150 million.
Many have been wondering if this might be the last Eye upfront for Moonves, a remarkable possibility to contemplate even one week ago.
Still a question mark is whether Moonves will materialize at the network’s opulent after-party, held for the last several years at the Plaza Hotel. Because of his fondness for schmoozing with the press at the event, which could lead to legal jeopardy, there were conflicting predictions about his evening plans. Already, he had been forced to sit out the annual CBS press breakfast, an additional opportunity for gladhanding with the press.
During this upfronts week, the historic degree of corporate merger drama — massive tectonic shifts involving all major media companies — has been only a minor thread in the larger narrative. It has surfaced mostly in brief zingers by late-night comedians, though Fox’s Beacon Theatre presentation on Monday proved a major exception. Executives sought to articulate for ad buyers the shape and ingredients of the “New Fox” that will remain after 21st Century Fox’s studio and major cable networks are sold. A deal is pending with Disney, though Comcast has reportedly lined up financing for an all-cash, competing bid.