The exit of CBS chair and CEO Les Moonves from the company in the wake of a dozen accusations of sexual misconduct, chronicled in two separate articles by the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, was a frustrating, slow-moving ordeal.
As Vox’s Emily Stewart has already outlined, CBS gave Moonves a graceful exit he didn’t deserve. The company twisted its hands too long, fretting over how to deal with what Farrow’s articles suggest is a dark and disturbing pattern of behavior. CBS prioritized its bottom line over doing the right thing. It might still pay Moonves a hefty settlement. It thanked Moonves in its press release announcing his departure, and the interim CEO who will oversee the company while a permanent replacement is chosen is a longtime Moonves compatriot.
The company’s behavior is maddening on many levels, and it’s too generous to think of Moonves’s exit as “justice,” since he will remain rich and powerful, just without immediate access to the levers of power. And yet Moonves’s ouster suggests a moment of progress for the #MeToo movement — and that its continued focus on the horrible behavior of Hollywood’s rich and powerful has altered the entertainment industry’s codes of conduct more than it’s been given credit for.
I certainly didn’t expect anything to happen to Moonves beyond, perhaps, an acceleration of his retirement and succession, so that he would leave CBS by 2020 or 2022 instead of later than that. (Moonves turns 70 in 2019, but executives of his status tend to stay in their jobs for long periods of time.) For as slow-moving as his exit was, it’s something that wouldn’t have happened at all even five years ago.
Make no mistake: For all the valid anger surrounding what’s happened here, Les Moonves is the most powerful person yet to have been brought down by bad past behavior coming to light. And his fall suggests that things aren’t just changing in Hollywood, but have already changed.
Les Moonves was a legitimate titan of the television industry. That’s why his ouster matters.
Since the fall of 2017, when the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations were published, many other powerful men in the entertainment industry (and other industries) have been exposed as guilty of sexual misconduct. But reporting these stories isn’t easy, and many rumored predators have remained hidden for lack of verifiable evidence. That’s how it’s always been in Hollywood — and it’s how the industry’s titans would prefer it to remain.
For example, in late 2017, I heard from a couple of people I trust that a fairly prominent person in the television industry who had long been dogged by rumors was dogged by said rumors for a reason — they were true, and there were people willing to talk about them. (The person I refer to is not Les Moonves, or anyone else who has been successfully reported on for their bad behavior.)
The further I got into digging into the story, the more I came to suspect the rumors really were true, and I found a few pieces of corroborating evidence. But I never got any further than that. I never found someone willing to tell their story, on or off the record. And it wasn’t just me. I knew of multiple other journalists, from several outlets, who were trying to nail down this exact story and encountering the same roadblocks I was. This person still wielded considerable power, which made breaking the story incredibly difficult.
Every entertainment journalist has some version of this story. They hear rumors about some Hollywood bigwig. They come to suspect the rumors are true. They find sources who are willing to talk. But then the sources start to get a little jittery as publication becomes a real possibility, and legal departments get concerned about libel laws, and everything dies on the vine.
That’s how the reporting and vetting process is supposed to work, of course. Nobody wants the press just making stuff up. But it’s also a process that powerful men in Hollywood have used to protect themselves for decades. They could always threaten to kill the careers of would-be actors or writers or directors for speaking to reporters, in order to maintain their powerful hegemonies. Harvey Weinstein was revealed to have made a habit of doing exactly that, among other things. But even in the wake of Weinstein, the power imbalance that made Weinstein’s behavior possible has remained largely intact.
Weinstein was an important figure in the film industry, to be sure, but his company was increasingly seen as on the edge of irrelevancy and even insolvency in the months leading up to the bombshell reports in the New York Times and New Yorker that ultimately ended his career. And that decline in his power has frequently been cited as a reason for why he fell. It suddenly became less likely that he could ruin whole careers in one fell swoop.
What’s more, he was a mogul atop a studio, but a small studio and one operated largely by him. He wasn’t a mogul on the level of Moonves, whose company controls the most popular broadcast network in America, the second most popular premium cable network in America (Showtime), and many other major TV brands (including a part of the CW and CBS All Access, to say nothing of the CBS Studios production studio).
With that said, Moonves’s own level of power had declined slightly in recent years. CBS went from being one of the biggest fish in the television pond to being a slightly smaller fish in a pond that was expanding so quickly, thanks to streaming and the era of Peak TV, that the company could hardly keep up.
The company remains a big player in TV, but it simply doesn’t have the assets to compete with a Disney, a Netflix, or a Comcast in the way it will eventually have to — which leads to occasional speculation by TV observers and journalists that it will eventually be gobbled up by a larger company.
And yet Moonves was still a massive figure within the television landscape. He’s the guy who built CBS into the country’s biggest broadcast network. He’s the guy who best navigated the incredibly tumultuous rapids that have beset the last 20 years of American television. Hell, if you go back to before the CBS days, he’s the guy who developed ER and Friends at Warner Bros. Television. And the beloved 1990 miniseries version of Stephen King’s It? That was him, too.
My point is that, within the TV industry, Moonves’s roots are deep, and they spread beyond his most recent domain. And CBS is simply too big to fail, considering how much of the industry it props up, and how much cash it has in its coffers. Given how tied to CBS’s good fortunes Moonves was considered to be, I’m still a little surprised that its board took any action against him, much less removed him — especially before the official investigations it has ordered are complete.
Indeed, the best comparison to Moonves is probably John Lasseter, the Pixar and Disney executive who was finally pushed out of the company after a protracted leave, followed by a particularly drawn-out resignation. There, too, Lasseter’s behavior (which involved several detailed accounts of sexual harassment from women who worked at the company) was seen as horrible — and there, too, there were fears that Lasseter was so integral to a hugely profitable company that he would quietly be kept on board. Instead, like Moonves, he was pushed out, albeit in frustratingly slow-moving fashion.
Removals of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct are taking too long, but they’re happening. That’s a huge change from the past.
As I said above, five years ago I would have fully expected Moonves to keep his job, even if everything else about the situation were the same. But, honestly, we don’t even have to look back that far to find an example of someone keeping their job in the face of evidence of sexual misconduct — we don’t even have to look back more than one.
The most troubling case of sexual harassment at CBS prior to Farrow’s reporting on Moonves involved former NCIS: New Orleans showrunner Brad Kern. Kern has been investigated three times for misconduct since 2016, and earlier this year, he was demoted from showrunner to a consultant, shortly before the third investigation commenced. But he’s never left CBS’s payroll, and he’s always remained deeply involved in the series, even as these investigations have been conducted.
And there are plenty of other examples of bad behavior at the company being quietly swept under the rug. Nothing has happened to Madam Secretary executive producer Morgan Freeman, who’s been accused of misconduct, nor did CBS punish Jeremy Piven, the star of its one-season-and-done drama Wisdom of the Crowd who was similarly accused of misconduct and assault.
The one time CBS has acted decisively was to remove the showrunners of Star Trek: Discovery, who were said to have verbally berated staff writers — though no sexual misconduct has been alleged. (It’s worth noting, if only for curiosity’s sake, that neither of those showrunners, Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, is a straight man.)
It was the treatment of Kern that struck many industry journalists and observers as possibly indicative of broader problems at CBS as a whole. Similarly, the company’s news division is singled out frequently in Farrow’s initial New Yorker piece on Moonves as a part of the company that has been rife with harassment.
Did all of this trickle down from the top? It’s not hard to imagine it did. But if CBS follows up Moonves’s resignation with further actions against those suspected of misconduct (as it already has with 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager), it will only help to bolster the impression that change of some sort, however small, is filtering through the company.
I realize that it is absolutely unsatisfying to argue that “This quarter of a loaf is better than none.” And I, too, am frustrated by the slow progress of what passes for justice in these situations. Unquestionably, CBS still has lots of work to do, and its framing of Moonves’s departure as a business decision rather than any sort of ethical one prompts eye rolls, especially after a bruising fight for control of the company with CBS and Viacom executive Shari Redstone.
But Moonves was removed, as was John Lasseter, even if it took longer than it should have, and even if it seems to have happened largely because corporate bigwigs, in both cases, seemed nervous about the PR problems and legal issues inherent in keeping both men around.
Has something shifted irreversibly in the culture? It’s far too soon to tell, and terrible men are ensconced in positions of power both throughout the entertainment industry and everywhere else. (This is to say nothing of figures like Louis C.K., who are not dependent on corporations keeping them employed and can, thus, mount their own comebacks.)
But it seems that companies like CBS are increasingly convinced that keeping those accused of serial sexual misconduct in positions of power is, at the least, not worth the hassle. Maybe that’s not anything major, but it’s also not nothing.