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Who Is Les Moonves?
Les Moonves is a former television executive who was the chairman and CEO of CBS Corp., overseeing the CBS broadcast network as well as the cable network Showtime, the publisher Simon & Schuster and other entities. After a successful career at the production companies Lorimar (home of popular shows like Dallas and Full House) and Warner Brothers Television (where he developed hits like Friends and E.R.), Moonves moved to CBS in 1995. He helped the lagging network move to first place in a few years by greenlighting shows like Survivor, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Big Brother and Everybody Loves Raymond. In 1998, ratings were further bolstered when NFL football returned to CBS. In July 2018, The New Yorker reported on six women’s allegations that Moonves had sexually harassed them in episodes dating from the 1980s to the 2000s.
Early Life and Education
Les Moonves was born on October 6, 1949, in Brooklyn, New York. Moonves was a year old when his family moved to the Long Island town of Valley Stream. As a boy, trips to the city with his mother to see Broadway shows sparked a love of entertainment.
Moonves’ father, Herman, owned gas stations and his mother, Josephine, was a stay-at-home mother who later went back to school to become a nurse. Moonves’ grandfather’s sister was married to David Ben-Gurion, making Moonves the great-nephew of Israel’s first prime minister.
Moonves attended public school before going to Bucknell University. He contemplated a medical career, but by the time he graduated in 1971, he was interested in acting.
After college, Moonves studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse’s acting school in New York. There he was coached by Sanford Meisner, an esteemed instructor who taught students such as Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck and Joanne Woodward.
Moonves, who found some success as a performer, moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and appeared in TV shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and Cannon. But his acting career wasn’t really taking off and eventually Moonves decided he would prefer to be an executive making decisions instead of chasing roles.
Moonves began working with Saul Ilson, producer of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, in 1981. He worked at Fox before joining Lorimar Television — the production company behind Dallas, Perfect Strangers and Full House — as a vice president in 1985. By 1989, he was president of Lorimar.
Moonves became president of Warner Brothers Television in 1993, following a merger with Lorimar. There he developed and sold hit shows like Friends and E.R., successes that helped him land a job at CBS.
When Moonves became president of CBS Entertainment in 1995, the network was stuck in last place, and its audience’s aging demographics were unattractive to advertisers. He oversaw a turnaround in the network’s fortunes, with ratings climbing thanks to reality programs like Survivor and Big Brother. These were joined by popular series such as Everybody Loves Raymond, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Big Bang Theory.
In 1998, Moonves became CEO of CBS Television. After Sumner Redstone’s Viacom acquired CBS in 1999, Moonves continued to ascend the corporate ladder, becoming chairman and CEO of CBS in April 2003. He was named co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom in 2004. In 2006, to combat a decline in stock price, Redstone split up Viacom and CBS. Moonves became president and CEO of CBS Corp., overseeing CBS as well as entities such as publisher Simon & Schuster and cable network Showtime. In 2016, Moonves became chairman of the CBS board.
Moonves’ time at the helm saw CBS prosper. Under his watch CBS All Access, a streaming subscription service, was created. He prompted CBS to produce more of its own programming, instead of licensing shows from other production houses. And he saw CBS successfully demand programming fees from cable and satellite operators.
Among the missteps of Moonves’ CBS tenure was the decision to hire Katie Couric to headline the nightly news for $15 million a year, as ratings success didn’t follow. Moonves headed the company when CBS News aired a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment with improperly vetted documents (an incident that came to be known as “Memogate”), and when Charlie Rose departed CBS This Morning following allegations of Rose’s own sexual misconduct.
CBS and Donald Trump
At a media conference in February 2016, as Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetoric drew more attention to the 2016 presidential primaries, Moonves said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Allegations of Sexual Harassment
On July 27, 2018, The New Yorker published an article written by Ronan Farrow that detailed six women’s accounts of sexual harassment by Moonves. Moonves was alleged to have forcibly kissed and touched some of the women and demanded sexual favors from others. One of these women was Illeana Douglas, who recounted that Moonves had pinned her down on his office couch while “violently kissing” her. The women also stated they felt Moonves had hurt their careers in retaliation for rejecting him. The incidents allegedly occurred between the 1980s and the 2000s, with the most recent allegation dating from a 2006 meeting. In addition, the article mentioned instances of gender discrimination and harassment experienced by CBS employees.
Moonves issued a statement to The New Yorker that said, “Throughout my time at CBS, we have promoted a culture of respect and opportunity for all employees, and have consistently found success elevating women to top executive positions across our company. I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected — and abided by the principle — that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career.”
The article’s release prompted a decline in CBS’s stock price. The CBS board promised to pursue an independent investigation into the allegations but said Moonves would remain in his job in the meantime.
On July 31, 2018, NBC News reported that a woman had told Los Angeles police in February 2018 that Moonves had sexually abused her in the 1980s. Charges of battery, indecent exposure and forced oral copulation were reportedly considered, but as the statute of limitations had passed the district attorney’s office did not pursue the case. Farrow tweeted that the complainant did not appear to be one of the sources for his New Yorker piece.
Moonves, who had spoken out in support of the Me Too movement and its aim of promoting a fair and just workplace for women, was a member of Anita Hill’s Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace. He resigned from the commission after the New Yorker article. Female executives and personalities who’ve worked with him, among them Sharon Osbourne and Lynda Carter, have voiced support for Moonves.
On September 9, 2018, after The New Yorker ran an article with six more women accusing him of sexual misconduct, Moonves stepped down as chairman, president and CEO of CBS Corp. Moonves and CBS will donate $20 million to “one or more organizations that support the #MeToo movement and equality for women in the workplace.”
Personal Life and Children
Moonves married first wife Nancy Wiesenfeld in 1978. They divorced in 2004. Moonves was seeing Julie Chen while still married, though he and Wiesenfeld had been living separately.
Moonves and Chen married in 2004, a few weeks after he and his first wife finalized their divorce. Moonves and Chen met when he selected Chen, a newsreader for The Early Show, to host reality show Big Brother. In 2010, Chen took on hosting duties for the daytime show The Talk.
Following the New Yorker article and its allegations against her husband, Chen released a statement of support on Twitter that said in part, “Leslie is a good man and a loving father, devoted husband and inspiring corporate leader. He has always been a kind, decent and moral human being. I fully support my husband and stand behind him and his statement.”
Moonves has three children — a daughter and two sons — from his first marriage, and a son from his marriage to Chen.
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