The fall of Les Moonves is stunning for the sheer velocity with which one of the most powerful moguls in the media business got dethroned.
Once regarded as creative executive with few equals, Moonves now leaves a complicated legacy clouded by the allegations of sexual misconduct made this summer by a dozen women. The 68-year-old boss finalized his exit today after weeks of speculation about his fate as chairman and CEO. For CBS — and, really, the entire television industry, which is at the crescendo of Emmy time and on the verge of a new fall season — the question will be how it emerges from one of the longest shadows ever cast by an entertainment executive.
CBS appears eager to publicly distance itself from Moonves, already pulling his bio from the corporate website. It wasn’t that way when Leslie Roy Moonves first came to CBS in 1995 as president of entertainment, after a successful stint as head of Warner Bros. TV, where he oversaw the development of hits such as Friends and ER. Prior to Warner Bros, he had been at Lorimar, home of Dallas.
Before crossing into the executive ranks, he started off as an actor, landing a few minor roles on shows like Cannon and The Six Million Dollar Man. He pronounced his own performances as “mediocre,” sensing more opportunity in climbing the corporate ladder.
The first rung on his climb to the top of CBS was turning around its flagship broadcast network, which remained his alpha and omega for the rest of his run even as the company acquired other assets. In the mid-1990s, CBS was light-years removed from its current front-running state. The network had lost lucrative NFL rights and in prime-time sat in the ratings cellar, clinging to old-fashioned shows like the decade-old Murder She Wrote.
Moonves, with a large Rolodex and showman’s instincts, displayed a knack for assembling programming lineups and he soon led the network from worst to first. The core hits were sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, CSI and reality television’s first blockbuster, Survivor. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, CBS would occupy the No. 1 spot in total viewers, a place it has held for 15 of the past 16 years. The turnaround ranked with those pulled off by Fred Silverman at ABC in the 1970s and Brandon Tartikoff at NBC in the 1980s.
Some talent chafed under Moonves’ leadership over time. The Raymond cast staged a holdout, demanding higher salaries. Then-CBS Radio heavyweight Howard Stern went into open revolt, donning a T-shirt that said “I Hate Les Moonves” and railing on air about mistreatment before leaving for Sirius XM.
In the wake of the Raymond situation, which resulted in press attention noting the actors’ modest pay hikes after their holdout, Moonves adopted a more hardline stance. He fired George Eads and Jorja Fox from CSI after Eads failed to show up for work during his quest for more pay, re-hiring them only after their public apologies. A less-prominent but similar dustup hit the sitcom Becker. These were just two of many instances of Moonves aiming to burnish his tough-guy image.
Once Viacom bought CBS, Moonves got to play bigger sandbox. Then president and CEO of CBS Television, he became chairman of CBS in 2003 and then co-president and co-COO of Viacom in 2004. (That same year, he married Julie Chen, a CBS News personality who Moonves had cast as the host of reality hit Big Brother.)
Across the aisle was his longtime rival Tom Freston, one of MTV’s founding execs and a smooth dealmaker with charisma equivalent to Moonves’. Speculation grew that Sumner Redstone, the irascible but wily owner of National Amusements, which controlled both Viacom and CBS, was considering splitting the two companies apart. The goal was to unlock the value in then-high-flying Viacom and divorce it from the slower-growth CBS. (Ultimately, the reverse proved to be true and Redstone’s daughter, Shari, would seek to bring the companies back together.)
When the split happened in 2006, Moonves became president and CEO of CBS Corp. One crown jewel that went to Freston was Paramount Pictures. Undeterred, Moonves hatched plans to launch CBS Films. “We basically can go into the movie business with little or no risk,” he said at the time. (In its first decade, the film unit has had some modest success but also tasted its share of disappointment.)
As CEO of CBS Corp., Moonves steered the company through the financial crisis, which gutted TV advertising revenue. He also is widely credited for engineering a kind of found money for the broadcast business at a time when it had faced something of an existential crisis. With pay-TV subscriptions soaring in the 1990s and programmers like ESPN commanding princely sums from cable operators, Moonves led the charge for retransmission consent. Broadcast signals may be available free over the air, but they shouldn’t be free to Comcast or its peers in the distribution game, he reasoned.
Retrans would become a multi-billion-dollar revenue stream that had barely existed before. It was a symbol of Moonves’ faith in the bedrock of CBS: its broadcast network and portfolio of local stations. While the company may have evolved into the operator of streaming services, a premium network (Showtime) and digital assets like CNET, at heart it was still all about the Eye.
Still possessed of a keen eye for talent, Moonves weighed in on even minor casting decisions while running a multi-billion-dollar company. That balancing act is a lot easier to question in light of Ronan Farrow’s investigations of him for the New Yorker. The stories which paint a pattern of behavior where boundaries were repeatedly crossed — though only one of the allegations occurred after he became CEO in 2006.
Presenting to advertisers during upfront season was a ritual in which Moonves took particular pride, and his personal signature on the CBS upfront will be one practical part of his legacy felt for some time. He moved the presentation to Carnegie Hall and upped the glitz factor substantially. He also courted the press, schmoozing them over breakfast to reveal the CBS fall schedule in the executive floor of Black Rock, the mid-century CBS Tower on Manhattan’s Avenue of the Americas. (Rival networks have generally opted for conference calls.)
While Wall Street generally rewarded Moonves and many key investors and analysts bought into his strategic view, there were also louder questions in recent years about how a traditional TV company would navigate the streaming universe. At a recent NFL media preview event, BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield (persona non grata at Black Rock) was asked about the Moonves situation. He pointed to market valuations on his phone, noting that Google’s parent, Alphabet, is roughly 100 times the size of CBS. “They are a pimple,” Greenfield told Deadline. “And the trouble with that is, how do you compete?”
In trying to answer that question, Moonves’ interim successor, Joseph Ianniello, isn’t likely to veer too far from his mentor’s approach and could have a hard time differentiating himself. In a research note, Cowen & Co.’s Doug Creutz said Ianniello is “well respected on the Street as an operator and negotiator,” but also added, “Ianniello is associated with Moonves, and sexual harassment allegations have extended to the overall culture of the company.”
In May, Moonves delivered some of his last public comments of his 24-year run at CBS during the company’s annual upfront event at Carnegie Hall — an event seriously threatened by the legal fireworks (now moot) between CBS and National Amusements.
The crowd greeted him with a standing ovation and the Long Island-reared executive cracked jokes in his gravelly baritone at first before transitioning to something “bigger than me.” While at the time the gravity of that moment seemed to be the pitched battle for control with National Amusements, it is also clear in retrospect that Farrow’s reporting was well under way.
“Think how many times have you’ve heard that this great, vital, powerful medium is a thing of the past, going to be replaced by everything from satellite dishes to your family toaster,” Moonves said. “But broadcasting has responded to every single challenge. From the VCR to the DVR to OTT, every supposed threat has turned out to represent a major opportunity.”