In the wake of the bombshell New Yorker piece chronicling the workplace sexual harassment carried out by CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves over the course of more than two decades, the big question in media and Wall Street circles is: Now what?
The allegations in the piece are not Harvey Weinstein-level bad, but they are still very, very bad. Six women provided vivid accounts of Moonves sexually harassing them, in many cases through forced physical touching during business meetings. Two women said that Moonves threatened to derail their careers when they rejected him.
So what happens next? The next logistical steps are clear enough: This week, the CBS Board is expected to hire a law firm to conduct an investigation of the claims, examining not just Moonves’s behavior, but the overall culture at CBS, which the New Yorker piece depicts as one that knowingly tolerates rampant sexual harassment, not just in the executive suite.
CBS: "Board of Directors is in the process of selecting outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation. No other action was taken on this matter at today’s board meeting." pic.twitter.com/jg41wZnwAA
— Dan Linden (@DanLinden) July 30, 2018
Theoretically, Moonves could survive the investigation—some CBS staffers have already tweeted their support of him—and CBS could remain the No. 1 TV network, where he’s had a stellar track record (TV ratings-wise) for 25 years. But given how strongly the #MeToo movement had taken hold of Hollywood, and how vivid and concrete the claims against Moonves are, it’s hard to imagine a rosy scenario awaiting him.
So, scenario two is that he’s removed from his position, clearing the way for National Amusements president Shari Redstone to finally re-merge CBS and Viacom (both of which National Amusements owns), as she’s been trying to do for months now–but has been stymied in large part by Moonves. CBS filed a class action lawsuit against National Amusements last May in an attempt to weaken its control over CBS, and the two have been locked in an ugly court battle ever since.
If Moonves is indeed pushed aside and the merger goes through, in many ways, CBS’s battle is just beginning. Under Moonves’s leadership, CBS has done an admirable job of having it both ways—milking the old network system by cranking out hit TV shows while also making forays into the digital future with CBS All Access, which launched in 2014. But with rivals like Disney taking company-wide, realignment-level steps toward things like streaming, and investing billions—as opposed to CBS’s and Viacom’s millions—into those efforts, CBS still has to prove how it’s planning to compete not just with Disney (which also just happened to swallow 21st Century Fox) but new media competitors like Netflix and Apple.
Here is a look at three of CBS’s key challenges going forward, with or without Moonves:
1. Tap into younger viewers
CBS is No. 1., CBS is No. 1. Anyone even mildly aware of TV network standings has heard this refrain. And it’s true. At last count, CBS averaged 9 million prime-time viewers. That’s a hair more than No. 2 network NBC, which averages 8.9 million. But look a little deeper, specifically at who those viewers are, and things become more worrisome.
In the all-important 18-to-49 demo, i.e., what counts for “young” or relatively young audiences, CBS has a 1.5 rating, while NBC has a 2.2. What this means is that CBS gets a lot of aging eyeballs: the kind of folks who are looking for broadly appealing, comfortable, and familiar shows like The Big Bang Theory, Survivor, and NCIS. Young Sheldon is a newer breakout success for the network, but even that, despite its name, isn’t attracting the young cool kids in the way that, say, NBC’s This Is Us is. To draw another contrast with that show, CBS’s big hits are pretty much exclusively populated by white people. It’s hard to see how this strategy can continue to be a winning one.
2. Go big(ger) with digital
CBS All Access has proven to be a savvy move for CBS, and it’s gained traction with shows like The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery. But four years after it was launched, the landscape has shifted dramatically. The days of toe dipping into streaming are over. As Disney is showing us, it’s time for the full plunge. To compete with Disney and Netflix and Amazon and everyone else, CBS needs a more aggressive digital strategy that isn’t partly, or in any way, about protecting a legacy business.
Things are only slightly more forward-leaning over at Viacom, which under CEO Bob Bakish is showing an appetite for digital acquisitions, but nothing on the level of peers like Disney. In recent months Viacom has been working to beef up its digital portfolio, acquiring the YouTube events business VidCon; the branded content platform WhoSay; and, last Friday, the teen-skewing digital studio Awesomeness. But all of these are relatively small investments—Awesomeness was purchased for $25 million, a tiny fraction of what it was worth a few years ago—when you consider that Disney paid over $2 billion to buy BAMTech, the tech company that is powering its new entertainment and sports apps.
On the digital front, CBS needs to go bigger or go home.
3. Clean up the culture
If the New Yorker piece made one thing clear, it’s that Moonves isn’t an exception to the rule at CBS. Rather, the entire culture of the company is built around enabling and covering up sexual harassment of female employees. The Charlie Rose situation was the first public hint of this, but the piece names several more executives whose behavior has made for an unsafe work environment for women.
Even if Moonves leaves, CBS’s entire culture needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. This is easier said than done and could be a years’ long process of getting rid of the trouble spots (and people) and creating new systems that truly protect employees. People need to trust their place of work, and feel that when they show up every morning, they’re in a place where basic moral rights are being upheld. CBS needs to focus its attention on this, not just for a more gleaming public image (which right now is in tatters) and to boost its stock price (also taking a hit), but to attract the best and brightest employees that can steer the company steadily into the future.