BEVERLY HILLS, California — Just over a week after The New Yorker published a bombshell report of sexual-misconduct allegations against CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, the network was in the awkward position of pitching its fall network lineup to TV critics and reporters at the Television Critics Association conference.
Unsurprisingly, a session with CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl became a firing line of questioning regarding those allegations. The questions were not so much about what Moonves’s fate is—because of investigations currently being conducted by two outside law firms, not much could be said about that—but more about the culture at CBS that has contributed to a pattern of allegations of inappropriate behavior by men in power positions at the network.
“There was some speculation we might cancel today, but we wanted to be here,” Kahl said in a prepared statement he delivered at the session’s opening. “We are committed to a collaborative, inclusive, and safe workplace. I’ve had many female colleagues come to me this week that are saddened by what they have read. They said it does not represent their experience at CBS. I’m not saying we’re perfect. No large company is, and there’s always room for improvement. But a lot of us have been here a long time precisely because CBS Entertainment is such a fulfilling place to work.”
He said that the allegations against Moonves are being taken seriously, acknowledging that “it’s a pretty safe bet that not much I can say up here is going to satisfy all of you or answer all of your questions.”
In Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker article, six women accused Moonves of sexual misconduct, several alleging that their careers suffered because they rebuffed his advances. But Moonves is not the only person at CBS who is the subject of similar allegations.
Brad Kern, who is executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans, has been formally suspended from the series as a third investigation into allegations of decades of systemic toxic behavior on set takes place. Controversially, CBS entered into a new deal with Kern even as allegations were made about his behavior.
It was reported Sunday that 60 Minutes chief Jeff Fager will “stay on vacation” as the show resumes production amid an investigation into sexual-misconduct allegations. Madam Secretary executive producer Morgan Freeman has been accused of a pattern of inappropriate behavior. CBS canceled the drama series Wisdom of the Crowd after star Jeremy Piven was accused of sexual misconduct. The network is the former home of Charlie Rose.
As Maureen Ryan wrote in Vulture, “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the house Moonves built is actually a petri dish that has allowed toxic men to flourish.”
The line of questioning Sunday was about that house and the culture that exists within it, specifically how that culture might change—and whether anyone could reasonably expect it to.
Kahl, who to his credit could have canceled the session, stuck to talking points championing CBS as a safe and healthy workplace. The encouraging aspect of the session was the pointed questioning from reporters in the room including Ryan, Salon’s Melanie McFarland, NPR’s Linda Holmes and Eric Deggans, TV Line’s Michael Ausiello, and myself demanding accountability and change.
Ryan opened the session by point blank asking, in terms of “yes or no,” whether Kahl believes CBS needs to undergo “radical cultural change” in order to ensure workplace safety for its employees.
“I believe we take workplace safety very seriously,” he said. “I think if you look up and down the halls of CBS you’ll find a very safe environment. We have over 40 shows in production and the vast majority of those shows are excellent sets where everybody is very happy and everybody is very safe. Any time any allegation comes up on any of our shows, it is investigated immediately. There’s no wiggle room there. Any complaint we have a procedure to follow. It goes to HR and sometimes to outside counsel if necessary. While things are not perfect, we take everything seriously at CBS or at any other work place.”
McFarland brought up the confusing optics of that which befell the showrunners for Star Trek: Discovery, a gay man and woman, who were removed from their show following complaints of verbal abuse while Kern, who has decades of allegations against him, enters a new deal with the network.
“How we investigate depends on the case and the specifics on it,” Kahl said. “I can’t speak to the exact protocol and procedures. But everything is investigated. The hopeful result is to find the truth. I believe in our HR department and I believe in any outside counsel we’ve ever retained to do a fair job to get the truth.”
We asked what institutional changes CBS plans to make in the wake of this tidal wave of allegations against people in power positions. In response, Kahl touted the company’s corporate gender diversity statistics. Asked how current employees of CBS are reacting to the Moonves news, Kahl said, “Every female executive who came to see me this week was honestly dismayed by what they read. It was not their experience.”
Several reporters made the point to Kahl that people at the network who are victims of abuse or inappropriate behavior may not feel safe reporting that behavior or trust that human resources would properly address a complaint, given power disparities and the multiple allegations against men who are in top positions and continue to be employed.
“I don’t believe that, no,” he said. “I believe our HR department does a great job. I don’t think anyone out here would want them looking into you if they chose to investigate you.”
We asked how, given the allegations against Moonves, the network going forward will react if storylines on its shows tackle the #MeToo movement or resemble what is happening with Moonves. The Good Fight on CBS All Access, for example, frequently mines headlines for story and has aired #MeToo-related episodes. A revival of Murphy Brown is set to debut in the fall, and it would seem a betrayal of the show’s ethos to ignore the subject matter.
“I believe we give our showrunners and our creatives great latitude to do storylines,” Kahl said. “This is something that is in the news. I would not be surprised to see this come up. It’s come up in the past on some of our shows. The guidance we give them is to do the best show you can.”
The cast of Murphy Brown and creator Diane English spoke to the critics after Kahl’s session, revealing that the revival will indeed move forward with a #MeToo-themed storyline for its fourth episode, which is titled, “Murphy Too.”