It’s hard to imagine a TV executive and a network more intertwined than Leslie Moonves and CBS.
He transformed CBS over the past two decades, building it into a ratings powerhouse — it has been the No. 1 network in total viewers for 10 consecutive years. Along the way, Moonves became one of the most powerful men in television.
But the CBS Corp. chief executive and chairman, who was paid $69.3 million in 2017, has come under the spotlight as the CBS board of directors said Friday it would investigate allegations of misconduct against him. That announcement came ahead of reports that journalist Ronan Farrow was about to publish an investigative piece in the New Yorker, detailing accusations.
The story published later on Friday. In it, six women accused Moonves of sexual harassment and intimidation.
“Six women who had professional dealings with him told me that, between the nineteen-eighties and the late aughts, Moonves sexually harassed them,” Farrow wrote. The allegations also included “forcible touching or kissing during business meetings,” along with physical intimidation and threats. The women accusing Moonves of misconduct include actress Illeana Douglas, who was nominated for an Emmy for a role on “Six Feet Under.”
Based on interviews with 30 current and former CBS employees, the story also details allegations that under Moonves’s watch, “men at CBS News who were accused of sexual misconduct were promoted” — although it isn’t clear whether Moonves personally knew about those allegations at the time.
“All allegations of personal misconduct are to be taken seriously. The Independent Directors of CBS have committed to investigating claims that violate the company’s clear policies in that regard,” the CBS board said in a statement. “Upon the conclusion of that investigation, which involves recently reported allegations that go back several decades, the board will promptly review the findings and take appropriate action.”
In a statement to the New Yorker, Moonves said that CBS “promoted a culture of respect and opportunity for all employees” during his tenure.
“I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected — and abided by the principle — that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career,” Moonves said.
Farrow previously published a Pulitzer Prize-winning report about now-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, which contributed to the producer’s downfall.
Moonves started in the business by trying his hand at acting. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and got a few TV roles. “I was mediocre,” he told CNN in 2006.
So he went into the business side and got a job with the producer of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” By 1993, Moonves was named president of Warner Brothers Television, where he helped develop such massive hits as “E.R.” and “Friends.”
Then Moonves headed to CBS in 1995, when the network was third in the ratings among big broadcasters and a frequent punchline about its older viewership. In 1998, Moonves brought football back to the network. Two years later, “Survivor” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” premiered and became hits. Under Moonves’s watch, CBS also started churning out hugely popular sitcoms, from “Everybody Loves Raymond” to “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
In a 2005 profile, the New York Times described one of Moonves’s keys to success as “understanding what the audience wants — sometimes even before it knows it wants it.”
“Americans do not like dark,” Moonves told the paper about deciding about the TV lineup. And the outlet described his television tastes: “In his shows, he likes the men alpha and handsome and the women smart and beautiful, and he wants little personal complexity: happy endings are imperative.”
Soon, CBS ruled the ratings game with an iron fist. In 2006, New York Times reporter Bill Carter’s book “Desperate Networks” declared that Moonves “engineered one of the most spectacular turnarounds in television history.” The book quoted a rival network executive as saying that Moonves’s accomplishments over a decade were “as worthy of major applause as anything anybody has done in the past quarter century.”
Moonves’s CBS Corp. also controls Showtime and shares the CW with Warner Bros. Shortly after Moonves took over at Showtime about 2006, the premium cable channel launched an era of such critical hits as “Weeds” and “Dexter.” The CW launched at the same time, and slowly built a devoted young audience, particularly with its superhero dramas.
Those who work for Moonves have been rewarded for their loyalty, a 2014 Hollywood Reporter profile noted. “Qualities that historically have rankled the CBS chief include dishonesty, disloyalty and a desire for the spotlight, with insiders noting that the men who have thrived under Moonves, a classic alpha male, tend to be egoless,” the story said. It added that “the women often have had bigger personalities.”
In 2004, Moonves married Julie Chen, who was then co-host of the network’s “Early Show.” She is now the moderator on the daytime chatfest “The Talk” and hosts the reality competition series “Big Brother.”
Recently, Moonves has been locked in a battle over the future of the company with Shari Redstone, who owns the controlling shares of Viacom and CBS Corp. via her entity, National Amusements, and wants to recombine the two companies that split up in 2006.
“The timing of this report comes in the midst of the company’s very public legal dispute,” CBS said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter on Friday. “While that litigation process continues, the CBS management team has the full support of the independent board members.”