“This has been a tough week at CBS,” began Kelly Kahl, the president of the company’s entertainment division (a.k.a. the guy who makes the big calls for the TV network of the same name), during his press conference at the 2018 Television Critics Association summer press tour. And “tough week” almost seemed like an understatement.
The company is embroiled in controversy in the wake of Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker report on Leslie Moonves, the chairman and CEO of the CBS Corporation, who is accused of sexual harassment and stunting the careers of women who turned down his advances.
What’s more, the New Yorker story lays out how a whole culture of abuse and harassment trickled down from the top, particularly in the company’s news division. It’s an incisive portrayal of how harassment and abuse by powerful men, even when not strictly illegal, continues to propagate itself throughout massive corporations.
But Moonves has remained undaunted, and CBS moved slowly to investigate him (though it has finally opened an investigation involving independent counsel). This has been in clear contrast to what has happened to other powerful men accused of horrible things in Hollywood, something my colleague Constance Grady attributes, in part, to just how powerful Moonves truly is. He might be less of a household name than Harvey Weinstein, but the degree of influence he has over the industry is markedly higher.
So, yes, a “tough week.” And it’s not hard to believe that a month ago, Kahl probably thought his TCA press conference would be filled with measured, muted praise for the network, which last summer was struggling to defend its lousy track record of racial diversity both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Though CBS has not caught up to other networks in this regard just yet, it has made big strides, and four of its new fall shows feature protagonists of color, compared to only one in fall 2017.
But, of course, the network’s better record on racial diversity was nowhere near the front of journalists’ minds at TCA, except to ask how its better racial representation is still in no way reflected in its gender representation and if that, in turn, reflects the company’s issues building a safe, supportive environment for women more generally. And Kahl also warned that his answers to our questions would ultimately prove unsatisfying.
Kahl trusts CBS Entertainment’s processes and HR department. There’s ample evidence he shouldn’t.
Kahl followed his “tough week” statement with a brief discussion of how the Moonves investigation has made him feel, noting that both CBS Films president Terry Press and Late Show host Stephen Colbert have given thoughtful statements about the situation.
“Leslie has been an excellent boss and a mentor for a long time, and he put me in this job. At the same time, you must respect the voices who come forward. All allegations need to be and are being taken seriously,” Kahl said.
But are they?
If there’s any reason to give Kahl the benefit of the doubt, it’s in that much of Farrow’s article tracks problems at other divisions of CBS, which Kahl has nothing to do with. Even in the case of something like the recent firing of two Star Trek: Discovery showrunners for verbal abuse, that happened at the company’s TV studio, not at CBS Entertainment.
But it’s not as though CBS Entertainment hasn’t had any of its own problems with harassment and abuse. Madame Secretary executive producer Morgan Freeman has been accused of harassment, as was Jeremy Piven, star of the network’s now-canceled Wisdom of the Crowd. And by far the most concerning story in this regard at CBS has been that of Brad Kern.