"This Is Too Hard to Imagine": Leslie Moonves and Hollywood’s #MeToo Tipping Point
As sexual misconduct claims threaten to bring down the CBS CEO, industry insiders take sides and The Hollywood Reporter reveals a board letter that questioned why no action had been taken weeks before Ronan Farrow's bombshell investigation.
Brace yourselves, Hollywood. The Shari Redstone versus Leslie Moonves cage match is officially on, and some oddsmakers are predicting a dramatic outcome that will transform the industry landscape — both financially and culturally.
Redstone — the 64-year-old controlling shareholder in both CBS and Viacom via her family's National Amusements — was handed a potent weapon July 27 in the form of Ronan Farrow's exposé on the CBS chairman and CEO in The New Yorker. It was always likely that Redstone, as a controlling shareholder, would prevail in the fight with Moonves. Now, with public allegations of sexual misconduct and professional retaliation, victory could well be in sight.
It's true that the CBS board did not fire Moonves at its July 30 meeting or even put him on leave while an outside law firm investigates. But the drumbeat is growing louder. "I think it's inevitable that Les is history at CBS," longtime media analyst Porter Bibb said on CNBC as the CBS stock was sliding. And as one industry veteran notes, "In every one of these cases so far, there's been a second round [of allegations]. Every single one of them. That'll sink the ship." Indeed, on July 31, NBC reported that an unidentified woman went to Los Angeles police in February claiming three incidents of alleged sex abuse by Moonves in the mid-1980s. Prosecutors declined to pursue the case because the statute of limitations had expired. Farrow promptly tweeted that this accuser did not appear to be one of the six included in his article. The ice beneath Moonves' feet may be thinning rapidly.
Yet the idea that Moonves, 68, one of the most confident, charismatic and successful executives of this era, could be brought down this way leaves some longtime industry insiders reeling. "It takes my breath away," says one. "This is too hard to imagine."
On his July 30 show, a shaken Stephen Colbert seemed to appreciate that the Farrow exposé could accelerate the end of the Moonves era. The CBS host expressed heartfelt gratitude to Moonves, whom he called "my guy," but added, "Accountability is meaningless unless it's for everybody." And then he made a comment about the impact of the Time's Up movement that also seemed to address the ongoing upheaval in the media world overall: "When the change comes, it comes radically."
Should Moonves fall, Redstone can rejoin the two halves of the $30 billion kingdom her father, Sumner, split in 2006. The next stop, say insiders, is likely to be a sale. A recombined Viacom-CBS might well be of interest to Comcast, which missed out on acquiring most of 21st Century Fox and may have a hankering for Showtime, SpongeBob SquarePants and a few movie franchises at Paramount (Comcast's Universal studio is relatively franchise-poor, and surely Tom Cruise can make it through a few more impossible missions).
In that scenario, it's not just the end of Moonves, which many find so hard to imagine; the CBS broadcast network would also become a leftover. "You would spin out the broadcast network and some TV stations," says analyst Rich Greenfield, who has long been a proponent of recombining Viacom and CBS. "We believe there are greater odds of an acquisition of a combined company than there are of the two separate pieces."
Before the misconduct allegations surfaced, Moonves boasted some weapons in his arsenal: He had plenty of support on Wall Street, and at the upfronts in May he got a standing ovation from advertisers at Carnegie Hall just for walking onstage. The message to Redstone seemed clear: Ridding herself of Moonves at CBS would not be as simple as dispatching unloved CEO Philippe Dauman from the faltering Viacom, especially as Redstone has a duty to shareholders of both companies. Moonves also had — and still has — the backing of a strong majority of the CBS board. Only three of 14 are squarely aligned with Redstone.
Despite Farrow saying he was working on the Moonves story long before the CBS-National Amusements litigation, it seems clear that Redstone wanted to seize on Moonves' vulnerability to #MeToo allegations. (She also may have been genuinely outraged by what she knew of the alleged Moonves conduct and by the fact that CBS had been, for many years, a haven for old boys. Note that her father — who notoriously treated women as playthings — for many years set that tone from the top.)
Rumors of a Moonves sexual-misconduct exposé circulated for so long without bearing fruit that Redstone may have started to lose patience. In June, she and Robert Klieger, one of her allies on the CBS board, sent a letter to CBS requesting the appointment of outside counsel to look into alleged harassment, bullying and favoritism involving CBS upper management. The letter, which THR has reviewed, said Redstone had previously discussed certain allegations — unspecified but some specifically involving Moonves — with a number of board members, but no action had been taken. Redstone and Klieger helpfully said they were prepared to connect an outside investigator to sources who seemed to have corroborating information. Now, thanks to Farrow, Redstone is getting the investigation she had been seeking, and some analysts are asking why CBS didn't look into this earlier.
Should Moonves fall, CBS would be left without its singular leader at a time when it is facing unprecedented challenge by digital upstarts, and several Moonves loyalists would likely exit with him. Not that some Hollywood insiders wouldn't rejoice. Moonves has long been a polarizing character: His loyalists are committed almost to the point of cultishness, but he has enemies who have been rooting for his downfall for years. He is in some ways larger than life: rich, powerful — "dazzling," as one veteran producer (with no business ties to CBS) puts it. Says a top exec at a rival company: "The best operator of a television [business] of our generation."
Given his long track record and $70 million salary in 2017, Moonves was considered at the very top of the Hollywood hierarchy. So it's not surprising that many in the industry, while acknowledging that his conduct crossed a terrible line, hesitated to say that the consequence should be a forced resignation. "Do you think he deserves to go down based on six women from 20 years ago?" asks a veteran TV executive. (One accusation dated to 2006, but the rest allegedly occurred years earlier.)
Terry Press, the head of CBS Films and a Moonves defender, posed the same question in a Facebook post: Is it fair to examine "the industry as it existed decades before through the lens of 2018"? It's a version of the argument made by supporters of James Gunn, whom Disney fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 over old tweets: Assuming no more recent allegations emerge, could Moonves not have evolved since the bad old days? (Obviously sexual misconduct is a far more serious allegation than even the most tasteless and unfunny joke on social media.)
Some Hollywood veterans also are troubled about certain aspects of the Farrow story that don't quite ring true to them. Is it fair, a prominent producer asks, to hold Moonves responsible for an entire array of alleged corporate transgressions in the CBS universe, including accusations of misconduct at the Pop cable channel, which is a joint venture of CBS and Lionsgate? The article also seems to burnish the résumé of Christine Peters, who told Farrow that she was shaken when Moonves put his hand up her skirt in a 2006 meeting. The story acknowledges that Peters had been "at times romantically linked in the press" with Sumner Redstone, then in his 80s, but did not note that Peters has only two producing credits, both from Redstone's studio. Redstone had set up the meeting with Moonves in the hope that the unqualified Peters would be hired to run CBS Films. (Obviously, that wouldn't excuse the behavior, if true.)
The article also depicts actress Illeana Douglas as so traumatized after Moonves pinned her down and aggressively kissed her in 1997 that she was unable to perform well in rehearsals for the sitcom Queens, was consequently fired and faced ongoing retaliation from Moonves. But individuals with knowledge of the events say Douglas had complained vociferously about the script and simply wasn't willing to play the role as written. "She kept saying, 'I don't want to be Ethel Mertz to [co- star] Penelope Ann Miller's Lucille Ball,' " says Melissa Prophet, Douglas' then-manager, who says she disputes several characterizations in Farrow's story.
Another source with knowledge of the incident — who is not associated with CBS — says Douglas was fired because "she had a take on the project that was completely antithetical to a CBS sitcom" but lacked the clout to impose her vision. "I don't want to take Les' side in this," this person says. "What he did was inexcusable. It offends me. But I don't think he killed her career."
And in the end, this person says, these shadings and nuances won't help Moonves at all. "I think Shari's going to get him," he says. "She was going to get him before this. Now more people are going to come out. This isn't going to go away."
This story first appeared in the August 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.