CBS Boss on Culture Woes, 'Murphy Brown's' Future and Its Post-'Big Bang' Comedy Plans

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl also talks with The Hollywood Reporter about whether broadcast networks are over reliant on spinoffs and what's in store for the summer (hint: finding a new scripted model for scripted originals).
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Kelly Kahl

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl doesn't want to talk about Bull star Michael Weatherly or the future of NCIS: New Orleans, both have which have been plagued by sexual harassment scandals. The executive, who bypassed a Q&A session during CBS' time on Wednesday at the Television Critics Association's winter tour, declined to field questions about either subject during a sit-down interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Instead, he addressed the company's ongoing culture woes a day after a second top producer was fired from NCIS: New Orleans, the future of CBS' comedy brand after mega-hit The Big Bang Theory wraps its run in May, why Murphy Brown didn't resonate and what to expect this pilot season (and beyond).

What are you doing to fix CBS' culture problem? Just yesterday another high-level producer from NCIS: New Orleans was fired.

Our CEO has been saying that culture is very important and getting it right and the corporation is committed to that. They have been doing a lot of listening, a lot of interaction — more so than in the past. The actors talked today that every show has a seminar with HR professionals talking about what is and what is not acceptable behavior. We are 100 percent committed to a safe and collaborative workplace. I absolutely believe strides have been made in that area, and it's been communicated that we will not tolerate anything less than that.

Have you had any showrunners say that they don't want to do business with CBS?

None that I know of.

The Big Bang Theory is ending this year. How will CBS' comedy change, post-Big Bang? Will you stick with multicameras? Your roster currently includes Mom, and bubble rookies Happy Together and Fam. Spinoff Young Sheldon is a single-cam …

We really enjoy our multicamera heritage and still think those tend to be the backbone of your schedule. But as Young Sheldon and Life in Pieces have show, single-cams can certainly work on our air. The bottom line is, I don't really care what the format is, as long as the shows are funny and they work.

How would you characterize the network's plans for Big Bang Theory's series finale?

You're not going to not know it's coming! We will support it heavily and celebrate it. It's been 12 amazing years and hundreds of millions of viewers. It's been a special show for me and everybody at CBS. These kinds of shows don't come along that often. We want to give it the proper respect it deserves on its way into the sunset.

Any plans for an extended finale or retrospective of any sort?

We're still talking about those things.

CBS hasn't done any veteran series renewals yet, but is Young Sheldon the heir apparent for Big Bang's Thursdays at 8 p.m. slot?

When we've lost some kind of big shows in the past — when Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men ended and now Big Bang — we've always been fortunate to have what looks to be the next show. We've never been stuck with nothing to replace it. I don't know that anything necessarily replaces Big Bang Theory, but we feel fortunate to have an extremely strong comedy that is still getting better and has already established a large audience. Will it probably be the No. 1 sitcom on TV next year? Yes, I think it probably will be. I think it's a show that certainly does more than just draft off of Big Bang; it's its own show with a loyal audience. We've had shows that people actively turned the dial after Big Bang, and they don't do that for this show. I think it has more to do with that it's a prequel.

Have you talked at all about other spinoffs from Big Bang Theory?

If Chuck Lorre or one of his awesome producers want to come to us with a new idea, we are all ears.

You have a new comedy in the works with Big Bang co-creator Lorre. Mom, also from Lorre, is up for renewal as its stars are looking for new deals. What are your hopes for his future at the network? His overall deal with Warner Bros. expires in June 2020, with several top showrunners leaving for Netflix — and Lorre just took home a Golden Globe comedy win for the streamer's Kominsky Method, his first top prize in his career.

We will do shows with Chuck as long as Chuck wants to do shows with us. I can't speak for him, but I do believe he's had a very good experience with us and I'd like to think very possible you can enjoy both experiences and take something away from each. I certainly hope he will be in business with us for many years to come. He is the best in the business and a great partner.

Murphy Brown likely didn't perform the way you would have hoped. Looking back, is there anything you'd have done differently? Why do you think it didn't find a larger audience?

No. It actually improved the time period from a year prior. I heard from people that they really enjoyed the show. [Creator] Diane English came to us and said this was the show she wanted to do and we let her do that show. I think she would agree with that. It was a very fun show to be involved with and it certainly remains in contention for next year.

I'd heard from sources that multiple people associated with the production wanted some sort of additional episode order beyond the initial 13 it was picked up for. But in success, had Murphy Brown delivered a Roseanne-like rating, would you have done a back order?

Diane and Warner Bros. TV came to us from minute one and said we'd like to do 13 episodes of the show — and only 13 episodes of the show. We understood we were doing 13 episodes of the show and planned it that way. There was really no talk of anything beyond that because that's what we understood; that was the deal with the show when it came to us.

So even if it popped, you would not have ordered one, two or five more?

I stick with what I just said.

Would you want another 13 or a shorter order?

It depends. You get to May [upfronts] and you have to look at all the pieces in contention and piece together a new season. You have to try to make everything fit the schedule to the best of your ability.

Life in Pieces is without a premiere date. Will it air this season?

It's going to air.

We're in the midst of pilot season and CBS feels like it's about halfway done with pickups. What's the mandate there? Across broadcast, it feels like it's more of the same: procedurals, family comedies and lots of IP.

It's a mix. Procedurals are the backbone of our network and our audience likes them. Do we want to do the same old, same old procedurals we've done? No. In most of our procedural development, there's some twist on an old medical show and an old cops and robbers show and an old legal show; it's something different. Going into development, we want to cast a wide net. There's no preset formula on, "this is what we're looking for." We read the material and see what rises to the top and then go to pilot. The numbers [orders between comedy and drama] will be about the same.

Do you envision the FBI universe similar in size as Dick Wolf's Chicago franchise on NBC?

We are taking it one at a time. We've learned a bit in the past with the NCIS and CSI franchises. The key for us and to be successful for the audience is any extension really needs to be distinctive with its look and characters. It can have some DNA with the mothership, but they have to stand on their own. Dick's pitch for FBI: Most Wanted was a distinctive show from FBI.

FBI: Most Wanted is one of multiple spinoffs and reboots already in the works this season. Is there an over-reliance on broadcast on reboots and spinoffs, or is that what broadcast networks need to do to stand out in the Peak TV era?

You have to look at them one at a time. Everybody's circumstances are different. Can a brand extension or reboot maybe help you stand out in the marketplace? Yes. You can promote it to people who are already fans of that show or genre. Is it a guarantee of success? Absolutely not. You still have to execute the same as any new show.  

Last summer you mentioned taking another look at bringing Code Black back after the series — a co-production with ABC Studios — was canceled. What happened?

We couldn't get to the financial place we needed to in order to bring it back. It was a bummer. The financial model for co-productions can be complex, and we just weren't able to get to the place where it made sense for us and for their studio and made sense for the general schedule.

Looking ahead to summer, are you looking to stick with a mix of scripted and unscripted?

It'll be a little of each. We need to find what that new model [for scripted] is. We have Love Island this summer, which is a pretty significant jump into adding another unscripted franchise. We have Blood and Treasure coming, which is a big dive into scripted to see if we can crack that formula again. It's probably less about the model and more about that we haven't found the right show. And we have to find the show that gets people to sit up in their chair and really gets their attention again. Under the Dome did that, and we've had a harder time since.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.