CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl defended CBS’ corporate culture and workplace-safety practices Sunday at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour — becoming the first high-ranking CBS executive to field questions from the press following revelations of sexual-misconduct allegations against CEO Leslie Moonves.
“Obviously this has been a tough week at CBS,” Kahl told reporters in his prepared remarks at the top of the executive session. He added that in the week since allegations against Moonves of sexual misconduct were published in the New Yorker, he was approached by multiple female colleagues who told him that the portrayal of CBS in the New Yorker was not representative of their experiences as the company. Speaking to his own experience, Kahl said, “Leslie’s been an excellent boss and a mentor for a long time. He put me in this job. At the same time, we must respect the voices that come forward. All allegations need to be and are being taken seriously.”
The New Yorker last month published a story detailing six women’s claims against Moonves of sexual misconduct. The alleged incidents spanned decades. The revelations arrived as Moonves is in a pitched legal battle with majority shareholder Shari Redstone over a proposed merger with Viacom. Last week, the CBS board of directors voted to take no action against Moonves in response to the claims. CBS subsequently hired two law firms to investigate the Moonves claims.
The allegations against Moonves arrived amid claims of misconduct on several CBS programs, including “NCIS: New Orleans” and “Star Trek: Discovery,” as well as at CBS News and news magazine “60 Minutes.” Kahl fielded multiple questions about the culture at CBS, and returned several times to the same points — asserting that CBS is a safe place to work.
“I believe we take workplace safety very seriously,” Kahl said. “I think if you look up and down the halls in CBS you’ll find a very safe environment.”
Kahl addressed allegations of misconduct against former “NCIS: New Orleans” showrunner Brad Kern, most recently detailed in a report from Vulture that claimed that Kern has been suspended from the show. He had been set to move into a consulting-producer position for the upcoming season.
“CBS studios investigated Brad Kern in 2016,” Kahl said. “Action was taken after that investigation. There have been no complaints since. I’m troubled and frustrated that reports continue to come out in the press. Because of that, we have opened another investigation with outside counsel.”
Kahl declined to address reports of misconduct at “Star Trek: Discovery,” where two executive producers were fired this summer amid reports of verbally abusive behavior, noting that the CBS All Access program does not fall under his purview as head of entertainment programing for the broadcast network. He also declined to address claims against CBS News and “60 Minutes” exec producer Jeff Fager, who the New Yorker article characterized as fostering an atmosphere permissive to sexual harassment, for the same reason.
“I can only speak to the entertainment division,” he said. “We’re a large company. I’m confident that the culture of the entertainment division is very safe, very collaborative.”
Kahl said that he has received no complaints about workplace behavior since the New Yorker story was published. When asked whether he has had conversations with producers for the network’s shows about the allegations against Moonves, he said, “I have not had any direct discussions with any of them about the matter. Again, I believe our sets and our shows are great places to work and great environments.”
The entertainment exec also defended CBS’ procedures for handling workplace concerns, saying that all complaints about behavior are referred to human resources — and that in situations where human resources is not an appropriate outlet, outside legal counsel is brought in to investigate.
As sexual-misconduct claims have engulfed the entertainment business in the last year, however, in several reported cases human-resources departments at many companies have been accused of not acting in the best interest of alleged victims, instead protecting the company or the accused. Asked whether, given that reporting and changing attitudes about corporate HR departments, Kahl felt HR was an appropriate outlet for misconduct claims, he said, “My dealings with our human resources department have always been very straightforward and very honest. I have great confidence in our HR department.”
Kahl touted the network’s gains in onscreen inclusion, noting that the schedule for the new fall season includes a number of people of color in leading roles. CBS has for years been criticized for a lack of on-screen diversity. When Kahl and top programming lieutenant Thom Sherman took over CBS’ entertainment division in 2016, they declared their intent to make greater progress toward inclusion.
“We have record levels of diverse actors on our shows, diverse writers,” he said, adding, “We are a big tent network and we want to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.”
Kahl also noted that 61% of CBS executives at the vice-president level or higher are women.
Other CBS employees have spoken briefly or issued statements about the allegations against Moonves since the publication of the New Yorker piece, including CBS top advertising executive Jo Ann Ross, and Moonves’ wife, “The Talk” and “Big Brother” host Julie Chen, who both offered public shows of support. Kahl said that CBS Films chief Terry Press spoke “eloquently” about the situation, and that “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert addressed the allegations “thoughtfully and powerfully” on his program.
Questions about Moonves and an alleged culture of misconduct at CBS dominated the executive session, which featured only a handful of the normal questions about programming. “There was some speculation that we might cancel today,” Kahl told reporters. “But we wanted to do this.”