A prospect that seemed unfathomable just four months ago—CBS operating without its longtime chairman and CEO Les Moonves—has now become reality, with Sunday night’s news that the mogul is exiting the company he has been the central figure of since 1995.
Buyers have spent much of the summer coming around to the likelihood that Moonves would not be running the company much longer, between CBS’ legal battle with parent company and controlling shareholder National Amusements (which was settled as part of Sunday night’s agreement) and the sexual harassment allegations leveled against him by six women in Ronan Farrow’s July New Yorker article. Farrow published a second New Yorker story Sunday morning, in which six additional women allege sexual assault and harassment on the part of Moonves, as CBS was finalizing its exit agreement with him.
Several of those marketers told Adweek last month they didn’t expect the embattled CEO to keep his job—but that the company should be fine without him at the helm, and they didn’t expect his departure would prompt them to reevaluate their media spend at the network.
“As an advertiser, I want to be in good shows that have good content and get good ratings. I don’t think that one man decides that,” said one buyer of Moonves.
Explained another, “Anybody, Les included, is replaceable. Companies are larger than individuals. I don’t think that Les leaving will necessarily harm CBS.”
After all, as that same buyer pointed out, many people once questioned whether Apple would be able to thrive after the 2011 death of co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs. “And I think Apple is doing just fine, thank you very much, with Tim Cook” as CEO.
Certainly, CBS’ now-settled lawsuit against National Amusements didn’t deter any upfront talks, as the network crossed the finish line with double-digit CPM increases. And the company said no clients had pulled their advertising from the network as a result of any Moonves allegations.
However, one buyer cautioned that advertisers might have changed their minds if the independent investigation ordered by the CBS board in August, which could take months to complete, had determined that “he has done what has been reported and is not punished for it. There would be some advertisers that would be concerned about supporting a network that doesn’t take this seriously.”
Brands could have also rethought their stance in light of Sunday’s New Yorker story, which detailed several more disturbing allegations against Moonves. But by finalizing his exit so quickly, the company looks to have averted any potential backlash from advertisers.
While buyers feel that CBS can continue to be successful without Moonves, that doesn’t mean that his exit isn’t a huge loss for both network and the industry. “I’ve been to more than 20 upfronts, and Les has spoken at every one of them. There’s no one else I can say that about,” said one buyer. “He has a legacy and a position that no one else has.”
That said, none of the buyers Adweek spoke with last month thought the CEO would manage to keep his job in the end. “He’s a unicorn in our business and he’s got a lot of power … but actions have consequences,” said one. “He’s clearly done some things right, but 10 rights don’t undo one wrong.”
Moonves’ departure means that for many buyers, their last professional interaction with the mogul, at least at CBS, was during May’s upfront presentation, held just two days after CBS filed its lawsuit against National Amusements.
That afternoon, Moonves walked out onstage at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation (though, CBS employees and affiliates—not buyers—were the ones on their feet that day) and joked, “So, how’s your week been?”
During what ended up being his final CBS upfront speech, Moonves and his team made what was in hindsight a persuasive case for the company’s continued stability, even without himself running the show.
“The record clearly shows, at CBS we love winning,” Moonves said in May. “We know a lasting success is not about winning now, but preparing ourselves to win in the future.”
Later in the presentation, CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl told buyers that the network has “a clear vision for the future: CBS then, CBS now, CBS always.”
With Moonves on his way out, buyers will now have to determine just how clear that vision really is.