A year ago, Les Moonves drew hearty applause from advertisers for fending off corporate turmoil. On Wednesday, the legacy of the former CEO reappeared in the venue he built into an annual display of his — and the network’s — power: the annual upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall.
“Turns out Les Moonves was totally exonerated — I did not see that coming!” late-night host Stephen Colbert cracked, drawing a mix of gasps and laughs. “There had to be one,” he added with a smile.
But there was more than one, in terms of executive commentary nodding (though not by name) at the former CEO, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment by more than a dozen women and ousted in September.
Joe Ianniello, the longtime top exec who got the acting CEO title in September and was extended three months later, earned praise from Chief Creative Officer David Nevins. He said Ianniello has “steadied the ship” so that the company can “build on its success and innovate into the future.”
Jo Ann Ross, the ad sales chief who kicked off the upfront, made special note that the network’s drama Madam Secretary received an award from the #SeeHer initiative for gender representation. “We’ve still got a ways to go,” she conceded, “but there has never been a better time for all of us to be the change we want to see. It’s important to you, and it’s important to us.”
During a segment dedicated to CBS News headed by division chief Susan Zirinsky — who succeeded David Rhodes amid a nest of scandals that unfolded against the backdrop of the larger Moonves meltdown — Gayle King paid tribute to her new boss. “We love her in the building!” King cried. “We feel really, really good about where we’re going.”
As he took the stage in May 2018, surprising many observers who expected him to sit it out, Moonves opened by asking, “So, how’s your week been?” At the time, the line went over big because the former CEO had just thrown down the legal gauntlet with controlling shareholder National Amusements, suing after merger talks between CBS and Viacom cratered amid great acrimony.
Just three months after the upfront, Moonves was out, ushering in a period of dramatic change for the 90-year-old media company. The 2018 upfront showcased CBS at maximum swagger — pitching a Super Bowl-enhanced lineup of broad-reach offerings to media buyers who seemed eager to skip the corporate intrigue and keep the winning streak going. The 2019 edition hit many of those notes and was no less confident a show, replete with references to the “most-watched network,” but it was striking for its glimpses of a company working to repair its culture.
Ianniello, whose tenure as acting chief was recently extended to the end of 2019 by the company’s board, has made a wide range of moves aimed at reassuring both the industry and Wall Street that the worst of the Moonves affair is behind the company.
Kelly Kahl, the onetime protégé of Moonves who rose through the ranks to lead CBS Entertainment, closed the show by deliberately departing from past editions of the upfront. “It’s been quite a year at CBS,” he said. While “only a few of us” get to speak on the Carnegie Hall stage, there is an “army” of workers keeping the company moving forward, Kahl said. “This team — and it is a team — has delivered. And I have never been more proud to stand on this stage.”