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The downfall of Leslie Moonves


Leslie Moonves and wife Julie Chen from a 2007 CBS “press tour.” Photo: Ed Bark

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Either then or certainly not now, it’s doubtful anyone ever said this about Leslie Moonves: “He is truly the all-American boy, not only on-camera but off-camera. He’s really one of the last true gentlemen, a guy that America would like to have as their brother or their father.”

Back in 2003, Moonves said this about Mark Harmon in connection with a mini-profile I was writing about the enduring NCIS star.

So yes, Moonves was fully capable of being gracious. But as Sunday evening’s stunning developments underscore, who knew what else he was capable of? The former struggling actor turned TV programming titan is out as chairman, president and chief executive officer of the CBS Corporation after previous and new allegations that he had sexually abused at least 12 women who have come forward in articles written for The New Yorker by Ronan Farrow.

CBS also announced that $20 million is being deducted from any severance benefits “that may be due Moonves” and will be donated immediately to “one or more organizations that support the #MeToo movement and equality for women in the workplace.” His interim successor will be CBS’ chief operating officer, Joseph Ianniello, who has been with the corporation since 1997.

Moonves, 68 and married to Big Brother and The Talk host Julie Chen since December 2004, has issued a statement that reads in part: “For the past 24 years it has been an incredible privilege to lead CBS’s renaissance and transformation into a leading global media company . . . “Untrue allegations from decades ago are now being made against me that are not consistent with who I am . . . I am deeply saddened to be leaving the company. I wish nothing but the best for the organization.”

He indeed was instrumental in taking CBS from worst to first in prime-time after joining the network in July 1995 from Warner Bros. Television. Two of the mega-hits he earlier had green-lit, Friends and ER, were in large part responsible for elevating rival NBC in 1994 and punching CBS into the ratings basement.

I was at his inaugural press conference for CBS and sparred with him frequently over the years. Moonves clearly loved being in a position of power and one could seldom feel the warmth when around him. But he also was accessible, appreciated those who seemed to understand the TV business and knew how to dispense colorful quotes. He could brag and swagger without being unduly off-putting about it. And there were few if any signals that would lead one to believe he apparently had an extreme dark side as a younger executive on a fast track to the very top.

I do recall a very lively party during CBS’ portion of a 1998 “press tour” in Los Angeles. The network had just re-acquired the NFL after losing it four years earlier to Fox. Moonves announced the news and said it was akin to getting one’s “manhood” back. He then celebrated well through the night, at both the party and later in the CBS “hospitality suite,” where a woman sat on his lap in an unusually unguarded moment for him.

Years later, at a 2014 interview session, Moonves was joined on a hotel ballroom stage by his longtime friend, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The occasion was CBS’ acquiring of a new Thursday Night Football package, which it since has relinquished to Fox.

I reminded Moonves of the “manhood” line and wondered if he now felt the same way about having even more pro football on his network.

“I said that? I don’t remember saying exactly that,” Moonves rejoined to laughter. “I never had that problem -- getting it back. By the way, I like having it (the NFL) back a lot, but not that much.”

“Your manhood or the NFL?” Goodell wondered aloud before Kraft chimed in. “One thing I’ve learned,” he said, “is every broadcast partner we’ve had . . . wished they had never given it up and always came back, and are happy they’ve come back. It might not quite be their manhood, but it’s very close.”

Such comments, from three very powerful men, ring quite differently these days.

But Moonves also hired the first two women ever to serve as CBS entertainment presidents. Nancy Tellem took the position in 1998 and served until 2004, when Nina Tassler succeeded her and remained until 2015. These are not mere token gestures. And in rebuttal to the New Yorker magazine’s first article on his alleged abuse of women, Moonves claimed he has “never used my position to hinder the advancement or careers of women . . . I can only surmise they are surfacing now for the first time, decades later, as part of a concerted effort by others to destroy my name, my reputation and my career.”

As Moonves’ wife, Chen’s career certainly hasn’t been hindered, although there have been questions about the propriety of her husband giving her a second show, The Talk, after they married. She had already been hosting Big Brother.

After Moonves’ ouster, Chen announced she is “taking a few days off from The Talk to be with my family,” but will “be back soon and will see you Thursday night on Big Brother.” Chen and Moonves have a son who was born in 2009.

Moonves arguably is the most powerful entertainment figure to be toppled after multiple allegations from women who have felt emboldened by the #MeToo movement to come forward rather than stay silent. Even more powerful than Harvey Weinstein, given the breadth and reach of the CBS Corporation.

Both can fall back on the multi-millions they made for both their companies and themselves. But no amount of dough can remove the stain of being disgraced and deposed in this manner. In the end, TV writers who have been at this for a while only knew Leslie Moonves from a distance. My many interactions with him in the end were no more than blips on his very big radar screen. I can’t pretend to know who he really is and was. But for some of us, his downfall nonetheless is no cause for celebration. It’s easy to write him off as a monster. But in truth, I never saw that side at all.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net