As Legal Battle Looms, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves a No-Show at Pre-Upfront Event

Leslie Moonves - 2016 AFI Fest - Getty - H 2018
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This was the first time since 1996 that he's missed the breakfast at the company's Black Rock headquarters.

"Lox with Les" — the annual pre-upfront press breakfast hosted by CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves at the company’s Black Rock, N.Y., headquarters — has been an upfront tradition since Moonves has been running CBS. But with CBS and Shari Redstone's National Amusements, Inc. due to face off in a Delaware court at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Moonves was a no-show for the first time since 1996.

The legal gambit launched by CBS on Monday seeks to block the Redstone family — the controlling shareholder of CBS and Viacom — from altering the composition of the CBS board and give CBS the right to issue a stock dividend to shareholders that would dilute NAI's voting power. The goal for Moonves is to fend off another merger with NAI-controlled Viacom. (The two companies split in 2006.)

CBS Entertainment chief Kelly Kahl delived Moonves' regrets: "Les always enjoys this event. But when the number of questions he could answer outweighed the number he could not answer, he thought it was a good idea to sit this one out."

It’s unclear which way the court will rule; CBS stock was up slightly Tuesday, while Viacom's was down slightly. But as Bernstein & Co. analyst Todd Juenger wrote May 15: “The probability of a CBS-Viacom re-merger is close to zero, for many years to come.”

If the court rules against CBS, Moonves would likely have little choice but to exit the company — or be fired.

The legal maneuvering — which is seen as an especially audacious bit of brinksmanship by Moonves — is unfolding less than 48 hours before Moonves and his team are scheduled to present their 2018-19 programming schedule and strategy to Madison Avenue media buyers at Carnegie Hall. Executives use the breakfast to unveil their new fall schedule to the media. And Moonves — a champion glad-hander and formidable corporate strategist — clearly reveled in opening up the annual, intimate confab. This year's invitation promised "gold medal buffet" and "platinum conversation."

Sources say Moonves, broadcast TV's biggest cheerleader,  will be on the stage of Carnegie Hall, where he serves as the de-facto master of ceremonies. 

Moonves is a famously involved corporate executive, inserting himself into pilot pickups and scheduling. And Kahl said he was just as involved this year. “We have jobs to do,” said Kahl. Thom Sherman, CBS’ senior executive vp, noted that their focus is on the network, not the legal machinations. “We have jobs to do,” he said.

Kahl would not expand on the other controversy at CBS: the exit of Pauley Perrette from NCIS, who in a May 12 Twitter stream contended she left the show after "multiple physical assaults." CBS Television Studios, which produces the show, issued a statement May 15, noting the actress had "a terrific run on NCIS and we are all going to miss her. Over a year ago, Pauley came to us with a workplace concern. We took the matter seriously and worked with her to find a resolution. We are committed to a safe work environment on all our shows."

The allegations of course come as the #MeToo reckoning is still roiling Hollywood. But neither Kahl nor Sherman would expand on the situation. Said Kahl: "We issued a statement last night and that’s all I can really say."

CBS will finish the current season as TV’s most-watched network; NBC is No. 1 among the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. It will be the 10th consecutive season that CBS will secure the milestone. And NBC looked like it was poised to pass CBS — with some help from the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl. But CBS this week surpassed NBC.

The network hopes to ride that to an 11th win and will bow three new dramas and two new comedies in the fall, kicking off the 2018-19 season with reboots of Magnum P.I. and Murphy Brown. (The network already has remakes of Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver on its schedule, so it was on the reboot bandwagon before many others.) Asked what message so many remakes sent to the industry’s creative community, Sherman rebutted that the network is looking for and fielding big-swing, high-concept fare as well. “I think our message is, continue to bring us your best stuff,” said Kahl.

CBS brass were also asked to address the future of The Big Bang Theory, which is heading into its 12th season in the fall. Contracts for the cast are up at the end of next season and co-creator Chuck Lorre said last year that one could "presume" that season 12 would be the end of the road for the multicamera comedy from Warner Bros. Television. Kahl and Sherman both reiterated that the Jim Parsons comedy has not lost any ground and has many more stories to tell following the finale's long-awaited wedding. 

"We are hopeful that there will be more," Kahl said. "We would certainly hope to get a few more years out of it." That would require  new deals with the cast, who earn in the $1 million per episode range and rank among TV's highest-paid stars. Noted Sherman: "We'll take it for as long as they [Chuck Lorre and the show's writers and stars] want to do it." 

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