CBS Entertainment Execs on the Post-Moonves Era and 'Bull' Fallout

Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman held the network's annual upfront press breakfast, which became a tense discussion of a non-zero "zero tolerance" policy.
Courtesy of CBS
Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman

What a difference a year makes.

The phrase has been employed at other upfront presentations this week — in a nod to the addition of certain assets (Disney) and the stripping of others (Fox) — but nowhere is it more pronounced than at CBS. At this time last year, the network ushered its longtime CEO Leslie Moonves to Carnegie Hall’s stage, where he was met with thunderous applause and a rare standing ovation. Twelve months later, Moonves is a name few at CBS hope will be uttered as the company looks to rebuild without the taint of its disgraced former chief.

Step No. 1: Formally peddle a new fall lineup, which began over breakfast with the press.

“We’re in a good place right now,” CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl said early Wednesday, before falling into sales mode as he unveiled a schedule that he described as “stable but not sleepy” and “aggressive but not reckless.” Following a deluge of stats, which boiled down to CBS is still the No. 1 most-watched network with or without the Super Bowl, he turned the room’s attention to his senior vp programming Thom Sherman, who plugged both the network’s strategy (“bolder, broader and more inclusive”) and its mix of three new comedies and two new dramas on the fall schedule.

Still, as soon as the room opened up to questions, the first was about Moonves — or most specifically, his absence.

Kahl fielded it, acknowledging that developing a new lineup without his famously hands-on former boss was decidedly different. “I can’t pretend it wasn’t but we have a team that’s been in place and together for a very long time,” he said. “Leslie was a strong leader and definitely had an influence on what we did, but in terms of the creative of the shows and the execution of the pilots it was this team.”

From there, the conversation with reporters moved to a broader, tenser discussion of action and perception, which centered on CBS’ decision to renew Bull following Eliza Dushku’s since-settled, now public complaint of on-set harassment by star Michael Weatherly.

Staying measured, Kahl  defended the network’s decision to move forward with the show, even as producers at Amblin pulled out. He noted that he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak for the production company (Bull will now be produced entirely in-house at CBS TV Studios), but said that he and his team had gone in with fresh eyes and looked at the totality of the situation. What they found, per Kahl: in Weatherly’s 14 years working with the company (dating back to his time on flagship NCIS), this was an isolated event.

“What happened was something that a lot of us didn’t know about,” Kahl reiterated, noting that Weatherly was "remorseful" and open to training and coaching as part of his path forward. In his third and fourth at-bats on the subject, he added: “He made a mistake, he admitted to that mistake. I personally believe people can make a mistake and recover from that.”

Kahl then used the platform to stress CBS’ more recent efforts to reform its culture, laying out actions including having trained HR professionals as a regular presence on its sets along with an anonymous, third-party hotline and email service and new compliance officer. "However things were handled in the past, they're not being handled that way now."

Looking to change the tenor of what had quickly become a charged conversation, Sherman finally chimed in with a quip about one of the net’s new shows: “Does anyone want to ask about Carol’s Second Act?”

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