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Q&A: Leslie Moonves Talks Leadership Transition at CBS Entertainment

CBS Corp. chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves was the matchmaker behind the pairing of Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman as the new leaders of CBS Entertainment. Moonves spoke with Variety about the whirlwind process of the past two weeks as he was forced to quickly find a replacement for Glenn Geller, who resigned as CBS Entertainment president for health reasons. On Tuesday, longtime CBS exec Kahl was named entertainment president, reporting to Moonves, with CW alum Sherman overseeing all program development as senior exec VP, reporting to Kahl.

When did you begin thinking about finding a successor for Glenn?

When Glenn left (on medical leave in March) I was very concerned. He’s a young man and having a heart problem is not a normal thing for a young man. I really was concerned about him. During the pilot screening and scheduling process (earlier this month) everybody pretty much left him alone which was the right thing to do. As soon as it was over and we all got back from New York, Glenn came to see me and said ‘I don’t think it’s the right thing for me to do to come back.’ I totally respected his decision. It’s unfortunate but totally understandable why he didn’t want to come back.

The last couple of months have been so hectic for all of us but there was a part of me that thought he may not want to come back. I knew we couldn’t just assume on that on June 1, Glenn is back. I started thinking about it and I met with a few outside people on very general terms. I was thinking of this possibility.

One of the people I was thinking of was Thom. I like and respect Thom a lot. I really have enjoyed working with him. He’s a terrific guy and a wonderful creative executive. After Glenn and I met, I thought, ‘OK, what’s the right move to make?’

Were you thinking of teaming Thom and Kelly from the start?

You know how close I’ve been to Kelly all these years. People are attributing (the promotion) to the fact that he did great on stage at Carnegie Hall (for CBS’ May 17 upfront) which he absolutely did, but it’s a lot more than that. I’ve always admired Kelly as being a leader, somebody people respect and look up to. Kelly’s got a great skill set, Thom’s got a different great skill set. I thought ‘Wouldn’t that be a good team together?’ I discussed it with (CBS Television Studios president) Dave Stapf. The good news about this place is I have a lot of people I’m close to and I trust. He thought it was a good idea. I then had a conversation with Kelly the day after I met with Glenn. I said ‘I have an idea, what do you think of it?’ Kelly and Thom like each other. Kelly’s very active in the CW as well and he and Thom know each other well. He liked the idea. I met with Thom and he liked the idea. The two of them had a three-hour lunch last week and we put the wheels in motion to get the deals done over the weekend. They hit the ground running today.

I’m guessing you spoke to CW president Mark Pedowitz before recruiting Sherman? [CBS and Warner Bros. are partners in the CW.]

Pedowitz was terrific. He’s worked with Thom for a number of years. He knows he’s the real deal. And he realized this was a great opportunity for him. (Warner Bros. chairman-CEO) Kevin Tsujihara was also a great partner in this. Obviously before I made the offer to Thom not only did I need Mark’s blessing but also Kevin’s. He’s my partner over there. And Kevin said the same thing. We can’t stand in the way of this guy getting this great opportunity. I’m very appreciative to both of them for that.

What do you think you’ll achieve with this pairing of skill sets that you didn’t have in previous incarnations of the job?

Kelly has great programming skills, business acumen and leadership abilities. He’s well-liked across the entertainment division and he works with other divisions — news, sports and sales. He’s just a well-liked guy within our organization. Thom is a scrapper, a real developer and a go-getter with the (talent) agencies. I’ve seen him develop all sorts of different types of programs and do them really well. I admire his abilities, having seen them close up. What they both do really well doesn’t overlap. People internally are already saying this is great. And they’re both really good guys. You know how important the team is to this place. … When this all came together at the end of last week it was a relief. I didn’t have a lot of great solutions. When this clicked it really felt good.

Have you given Kelly and Thom any specific marching orders for development or other priorities?

We’ve been programming CBS similarly for a long time. Kelly knows what works here. Thom has some ideas about expanding. One of the things we talked about was expanding the palette of CBS. He comes from a place where the programming is slightly different. We’ve had some very interesting philosophical conversations. But my watchword to them both is: Make it good and they’ll find us.

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