In a seeming eye-blink last week, CBS pushed out its CEO and the long-time head of its most popular program, changed nearly half its board, settled litigation against its biggest shareholder and set off in…what direction?
The questions facing the suddenly reshaped company are many. Reports from inside the company after Les Moonves resigned and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager was fired show a company that must rebuild its leadership and culture and figure out a new direction even as the TV industry undergoes epochal consolidation and a shift to a data-driven addressable future.
Six new board members – installed after months of infighting over whether the company should merge with Viacom and an attempt to dilute the power of controlling shareholder National Amusements – must now figure out who will lead the company going forward, and how. In a time of Hollywood corporate gigantism, mid-sized CBS also needs to figure out if it can or should remain independent.
Longtime Moonves right-hand man Joe Ianniello is interim CEO but many doubt he’ll run the company for long. Potential permanent successors include former Time-Warner CEO Richard Parsons (already a board member) former Turner CEO John Martin, Showtime chief David Nevins, former CBS Entertainment chairwoman Nina Tassler, and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Either would represent a significant shift in management style from Moonves, whom critics said cultivated a loyalty-driven “boy’s club” among senior leadership.
CBS even has to figure out what to do with Julie Chen, Moonves’ wife and a key on-air presence for two of its biggest shows, CBS The Talk and Big Brother. (Update: Chen departed The Talk on Tuesday, recording a video where she said she needed “to spend more time at home with my husband and our young son.”)
While many say it would be unfair to penalize Chen for her husband’s misdeeds, she’ll be in a difficult position when discussions around #MeToo inevitably arise yet again, especially because CBS This Morning‘s former co-anchor, Charlie Rose, was fired last year after his own sexual misconduct allegations. Some critics have called Chen hypocritical and possibly complicit in Moonves efforts to undermine the careers of singer Janet Jackson and Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
Murphy Brown creator Diane English, who has made five series for CBS and known Moonves for a quarter century, said damage to the company is far broader than what happened between the executive and his accusers.
“It’s not just the victims and the guy, it’s the entire CBS family,” English said at a media event late in the week for the revived Murphy Brown. “I’ve worked almost my entire career there, (with) great and talented people who are having the same reaction that we have: ‘Who is this guy?’ That’s really what I think we’ve all been dealing with. There’s a lot of grieving going on over there. He really mentored a lot of women in positions of authority, and then to see this side of the person is so devastating.”
And Fager was criticized for ignoring harassment issues in the news division even after three settlements were paid to employees. After a text to a CBS reporter covering the Moonves investigation was seen as threatening, Fager was fired.
Fager’s long-time No. 2, Bill Rhodes, will oversee the show as it begins its 51st season, but news executives signaled they may look outside CBS for the show’s third-ever leader. Last year, 60 Minutes was yet again one of TV’s most-watched programs, adding Oprah Winfrey as a contributor, and averaging 11.5 million viewers.
That’s not the only corner of CBS programming needing major attention. Someone will have to decide how to replace Emmy-winning ratings stalwart The Big Bang Theory, now in its final season.
Amid all this, CBS remains a juicy takeover target, if one left adrift. With a market capitalization of $21 billion, CBS could be attractive to a big player wanting a broadcast and premium cable network. It might even be a good match for a mid-sized player such as Sony, MGM or Lionsgate, none of which owns a broadcast network.
A merger with Viacom may still make sense. Viacom CEO Bob Bakish has made a string of strategic acquisitions and investments (WHOSAY, VidCon, AwesomenessTV, Pocket.watch) and refocused Viacom on core brands and new digital delivery and programming ventures.
CBS has done far less in the digital realm. It launched SVOD service CBS All Access, with a new Star Trek series exclusively for All Access. But the service has had little other impact programming that would justify a monthly subscription year round from millions of users.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the company revealed a few months ago that All Access and the Showtime standalone app attracted a combined 5 million subscribers. Moonves said then that he was pleased, but those numbers are small potatoes compared to Netflix’s 130 million or Amazon’s 50 million subs.
Unlike pretty much all the major SVOD competitors, CBS doesn’t have billions to spend on original digital exclusives that would make All Access a must-have for the digitally adept. It has a few new originals coming for All Access: a reboot of The Twilight Zone from Oscar-winner Jordan Peele; Scream creator Kevin Williamson’s Tell Me a Story; and yes, another Star Trek series, this one led by Patrick Stewart. Those are nice. Netflix is offering 700 new episodic series and feature-length shows.
Can CBS remain independent, invest in needed programming for the digital future, and put in place the addressable technologies that advertisers want as part of TV’s transformation in a digital age? None of this will come cheap. All of it will require leadership. CBS may have neither the cash nor the vision for the road ahead.
So, lots to address for the Tiffany Network, now struggling to remove the tarnish of a very bad week and figure out what it wants to sell.