The Downfall of Les Moonves and the Future of CBS

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In the 1970s and 1980s, CBS was home to some of the best remembered and most groundbreaking programs on television—All in the FamilyThe Mary Tyler Moore ShowRhodaMaudeDesigning WomenMurder, She WroteMurphy Brown and countless others, many of which were female-driven with female lead stars. But since the mid-1990s, things have taken a turn—when Les Moonves took over as president of CBS Entertainment in 1995, the network’s approach to programming has shifted largely to male-driven procedurals and misogynistic comedies, a vision still present on the network today. So is it any surprise that the executive stepped down from his position this week amid a flood of sexual misconduct allegations? I think not.

Since the 2000s, CBS has undeniably had a reputation of being the more fiscally and culturally conservative network. In the early years of the decade, the Nielsen ratings were dominated by procedural cop shows that fought crime and gave viewers a taste of the disturbing instances of society with a new case this week. Television in the 2000s would have been unrecognizable without mentioning the CSI franchise, which at its height encompassed three weekly police procedurals in different American cities (Las Vegas, Miami, and New York) and initially served mostly as competition for the endearing popularity of NBC’s Law & Order franchise. But the success CBS saw with weekly procedural dramas in the 2000s would go unmatched, and CSI was only the beginning: before long, other procedurals like NCIS, Without a TraceCold CaseNumb3rs, Criminal MindsGhost Whisperer, and The Mentalist were booming in ratings and popularity. For the longest time, it seemed no one complained about the rise of procedurals on CBS, since they were popular and profitable. Sure, many were arguably male-driven, but they still had female supporting characters and a select few with female leads. But the vision for women that these programs presented was hardly liberating, much less inviting: somewhere between the empowering and feministic visions of Mary Tyler Moore and Designing Women, the main focus of CBS’ programming quickly shifted to hot-shot male FBI detectives with cool sunglasses with the female characters left to be either their sidekicks, or a vaginal swab in the CSI lab from the hooker who was killed.

While I wish we could say the misogyny on CBS in the last 20 years was limited to cop shows, it’s pretty clear that the network applied a certain vision that praised men and limited women to all of its programming, especially sitcoms. While arguably any sitcom can have its funny or loveable moments, there is literally no denying that Everybody Loves Raymond or The King of Queens (who both began their runs on CBS in the mid ‘90s) rely on inherently misogynistic gender norms to sell their appeal. Sure, the family sitcom reached its peak throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s and that is no doubt what ensured Raymond and Queens’ success, but in comparison to the family sitcoms that CBS associated themselves with a mere 25 years earlier (All in the FamilyOne Day at a Time, Good Times, or The Jeffersons), Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens pushed little to no boundaries and instead reinforced aging gender norms for the white heterosexual family. It should then come as no surprise that CBS was home to Two and a Half Men, which—as strong as it was for some years—was deeply misogynistic to even the most casual viewer. Still, the series ran for 12 seasons and even survived the erratic behavior and heavily publicized firing of its lead star, Charlie Sheen, in 2011. Time and time again, CBS has relied on inherently misogynistic, heteronormative values hidden behind strong writing to sell their comedies—How I Met Your MotherRules of EngagementGary UnmarriedMike & Molly, and even The Big Bang Theory (the show has been on for almost 12 years and Penny has never been given a last name. Don’t tell me that’s a liberating female role.) Even female-driven CBS sitcoms like The New Adventures of Old Christine2 Broke Girls, or Mom have spent an awful lot of time painting women in a negative light. And, in recent years, viewers and critics have begun to take notice of the lack of diversity in CBS programming, both for women and ethnic minorities. Decades after Mary Tyler MooreRhodaMaudeDesigning Women, and Murphy Brown called CBS home and broke down walls for women on television, their network has been reduced to male-driven procedurals and misogynistic family sitcoms. And it seems that Les Moonves is partly to blame.

Les Moonves became president of CBS Entertainment in July 1995 and quickly worked his way up the ladder, later serving as the president of Viacom and was referred to by some as the most powerful man in television…until this week. On September 9, 2018, Moonves resigned as president of CBS amid growing allegations of sexual misconduct by countless employees, both cast and crew members (the irony in this, of course, is that Moonves previously pledged support and donated money to the Time’s Up and Me Too movements). The accusations against Moonves were first brought to light by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker in July, where he interviewed several women who accused him of assault. Among them are actress Illeana Douglas, known for appearing on HBO’s Six Feet Under, who worked with Moonves on a CBS sitcom pilot called Queens in the late ‘90s. After he allegedly assaulted her and demanded that she keep quiet, Douglas was replaced on Queens, dropped by her management (they said she had caused them to “burn their bridges” with CBS), and was ultimately blocked by Moonves when she tried to take him to court.

Six women told their stories of being harassed or assaulted by Moonves in The New Yorker, some of which asked to remain anonymous. But perhaps one of the most interesting perspectives on the growing case against Les Moonves comes from writer and producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of Designing Women, who wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter detailing her experiences with the TV mogul and reminds everyone that not all harassment is sexual. In the article, Thomason revealed that Moonves kept her shows off the air for up to seven years and while she makes clear that she was never sexually assaulted or harassed by him, that doesn’t mean she was never targeted. In 1992, Thomason was given the largest writing and producing contract in the history of CBS, for $50 million, “involving five new series with hefty penalties for each pilot not picked up.” She described Designing Women as her “flagship show” on CBS and by 1990 she had already seen further success with another sitcom on the network, Evening Shade. Thomason recalls how former CBS executives gave her and her producers “carte blanche” to tackle any subject regardless how controversial, including sexual harassment, pornography, and domestic violence. She described the feeling as exhilarating, but it all quickly grinded to a halt when Moonves took over in 1995. He voiced his dislike of the approach of Thomason’s programming, but because she was still under contract, she continued trying to win him over to no avail. Her two other CBS sitcoms, Hearts Afire and Women of the House, were cancelled and practically forgotten, and Thomason says she would not work again for seven years as Moonves seemingly blocked her from getting other gigs. “Over the years, even when an actress managed to get one of my scripts through an agent, the deal would immediately be killed,” she wrote. “It was like a personal vendetta and I will never know why. Was it because I was championing the New South? Or an admittedly aggressive, feminist agenda? Or both? […] When I finally realized he was never going to put a show of mine on the air, I left. It was never really about the money anyway, I just wanted to work. People asked me for years, ‘Where have you been? What happened to you?’ Les Moonves happened to me.”

Thomason also describes walking through the halls of CBS one day years later, noticing that the portraits of iconic women like Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Maude, Murphy Brown, and the Designing Women were gone from the walls. She doesn’t know why they’re gone and won’t ask, but all she knows is that “the likes of them have rarely been seen on that network again. Thanks to Les Moonves, I can only guess they all became vaginal swabs in crime labs on CSI Amarillo.” The writer and producer also doesn’t shy away from bringing other stories into her own, writing that Moonves’ motto when he first took over CBS was “why would I wanna cast ’em if I don’t wanna f*ck ’em?” as well as an especially interesting tidbit regarding an encounter with a particular actress who goes nameless, but the implications are pretty clear. Thomason writes: “Soon, I would hear how he had invited a famous actress to lunch in the CBS dining room. Coming off the cancellation of her iconic detective show, the star began pitching a new one. He informed her that she was too old to be on his network. She began to cry and stood up to go. He stood up too, taking her by the shoulders and telling her, ‘I can’t let you leave like this.’ She reacted, suddenly touched. Then he shoved his tongue down her throat. I know this happened because the star is the person who told me.” Some have theorized that it could have been one of the actresses from Cagney & Lacey, the delightful female-driven police procedural from the ‘80s, but I think this may be referring to Angela Lansbury (CBS cancelled Murder, She Wrote in 1996 after 12 seasons, which would have been one season after Moonves took over the network).

Despite growing evidence of abuse and misconduct against Les Moonves, we can perhaps take comfort in the fact that he is now no longer president of CBS, and this very well might usher in a new era for the network. With these new allegations brought to light that reminds us of the shift in programming on CBS since the ‘90s, I can only imagine how much the creators and producers of series like The Good Wife had to fight to keep it on the air, given how much it was rooted in feminism and politics, and how much of a departure The Good Wife was from the rest of CBS’ programming at the time. But if we take a closer look, perhaps the downfall of Les Moonves had already been written in the stars: while CBS does continue to rely heavily on its primetime procedurals, the criticism it has faced regarding the lack of diversity in its programming has led to some changes, slowly but surely, over the course of the last few years. While there are currently only two programs on the network with female lead stars (Madam Secretary and Mom), the revival of Murphy Brown later this month is sure to bring some much-needed comedic and cultural chutzpah to an otherwise bland network lacking in diversity and representation. Much like the ill-fated Roseanne reboot from earlier this year, the new Murphy Brown will find iconic characters who broke down walls in a previous generation in a new era of social issues and journalism, and it will be interesting to see the results (hopefully with less racist remarks than the aforementioned ABC sitcom reboot). The revival will be joined by a new sitcom called The Neighborhood starring Cedric the Entertainer and Max Greenfield, which satirizes gentrification and racial norms (two things CBS practically hasn’t touched since All in the Family or The Jeffersons). Progress takes time, and perhaps with a problematic president of entertainment now gone, CBS can continue inching closer to more culturally relevant programming as it once had.

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