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Dark Cloud Hangs Over CBS as Staff Awaits the Fate of Leslie Moonves

For the most part, the shock has worn off. But a black cloud still hangs heavy over CBS.

Company insiders remain fretful about the fate of their leader, Leslie Moonves, following a damning portrait painted by investigative reporter Ronan Farrow in his July 27 New Yorker exposé of sexual misconduct allegations.

As of Aug. 6, multiple sources in Los Angeles said there were no telltale signs that an independent investigation into the accusations had yet been started by the two law firms — Covington & Burling and Debevoise & Plimpton — that were formally retained by the CBS board on Aug. 1. But people are bracing for an uncomfortable process to come.

According to those who work on the CBS Studio Center lot in Studio City, there’s a bunker atmosphere around Moonves’ spacious office that is highly unusual. “Even when [sizable corporate] deals are happening, it’s a lot more open” than it has been, said a senior CBS executive.

Multiple sources said Moonves has not been as strong a presence in the Los Angeles office as usual in the past few weeks, although he has been seen around the lot. In the days before Farrow’s New Yorker story hit, there was a noticeable level of hunkering down among top executives in closed-door meetings. (In the past few years, Moonves had dialed back some of his famously hands-on management style as corporate concerns played a bigger role in determining CBS’ future).

Still, now there is growing unease that a regime change at the Moonves level could lead to a housecleaning in the upper executive ranks. CBS’ Big Four rivals have all faced a revolving door of management, but not CBS. Since he took the reins as CBS Entertainment president in July 1995, Moonves has been the consistent presence that galvanized the daily work of the mothership network and its offshoots: Showtime, CBS Television Studios, Simon & Schuster and CBS Television Stations. CBS has about 20,000 employees concentrated mostly in New York and Los Angeles and at its 28 owned-and-operated TV stations across the country.

Network television is a famously rough-and-tumble business, but CBS has enjoyed a rare level of stability at the top for nearly a quarter century. Now the notion that Moonves could be forced out amid questions about his behavior stretching back to the 1980s has nerves on edge. The swirl of allegations around the chief exec has been much discussed, albeit quietly, in the halls. But there is a growing sense of anger about the story’s portrayal of the culture at CBS, separate from the Moonves-specific allegations.

Meanwhile, the culture at CBS News has been under intense scrutiny as well. “60 Minutes” chief Jeff Fager, who was also prominent in Farrow’s story, is under the microscope amid allegations about his behavior and accusations that he failed to act against other “60 Minutes” employees who were accused of harassment by female CBS News staffers. CBS had already been investigating allegations about the culture of CBS News following the firing last year of “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose. Fager is away from the office on what CBS News has characterized as a previously scheduled vacation that was extended by a week as the investigation of the unit by the law firm Proskauer Rose nears its end.

As for CBS Entertainment, nine sources representing various levels of the company — from executive assistants to C-suite executives — said the image of CBS as a cesspool environment for women is deeply at odds with their experience. The sources declined to comment on the record, given the sensitivity of the investigation and media frenzy around the Moonves allegations. But several sources noted that there are numerous female staffers working in support roles at the Studio City-based unit with tenures of 30 years or more.

“People don’t leave this place — that says something,” said one veteran female staffer, who described her experience working with top executives as uniformly “respectful.” Numerous sources contacted for this story took pains to say they could speak only to their own experiences with Moonves and were not in a position to cast any doubt on the accounts of the six women cited in the New Yorker story.

Women’s group UltraViolet commissioned a digital mobile billboard to deliver a pointed message outside the Beverly Hilton on Aug. 5, where CBS was holding its TCA press tour presentation.
Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

As the fallout from the Farrow story continues, the task of publicly defending the company has fallen to two of Moonves’ top lieutenants, CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins. For CBS, the piece hit at an inopportune time, landing just a week before the network and Showtime gave presentations at the annual summer Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills. The fact that senior executives had to answer for Moonves is a sign of a crisis at the top, because for more than 23 years, there has been no more forceful advocate for CBS than its leader.

CBS’ day at TCA got off to a tough start, with Kahl fielding a half hour of questions regarding the allegations and his perspective on working conditions at CBS. “If you look up and down the halls at CBS, you will find a very safe environment,” Kahl said Aug. 5 as he was grilled by reporters. Kahl joined CBS in January 1996 after previously working with Moonves at Warner Bros. Television. “I think it’s hard for all of us,” acknowledged Kahl. “But again, we have the best executives in the business. We are professionals. We’ve been doing it a long time, and we’ve got shows to put on the air. We’ve got a fall season coming up. That’s why we’re here today, and we have our nose down. We’ve talked, and we’re going to keep working hard, put the best shows on TV that we can.”

At day’s end, CBS’ traditional closing cocktail party at the Beverly Hilton was a short and muted affair. Moonves sometimes attends those events, but it was no surprise that he was not to be found this year.

Angst over Moonves and concern about a massive shake-up at CBS is magnified by the legal battle under way between Team Moonves and CBS Corp. controlling shareholder Shari Redstone. The sides are fighting for control of the company — and its destiny — in a time of feverish M&A talks for media giants.

“We’re fighting two wars at once,” said a senior CBS executive.

The bitterness was reinforced last week when Redstone’s National Amusements, Inc. filed a motion as part of the pending lawsuit accusing Moonves and CBS chief operating officer Joseph Ianniello of destroying evidence relevant to their lawsuit against NAI for breach of fiduciary duty. CBS responded that the specific accusation was related to the TigerText app that allows for secure communications, which was implemented in the wake of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack and not for “nefarious or sinister” purposes.

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