Inside the Tense Atmosphere at CBS Amid Harassment Allegations

CBS Illustration
Cheyne Gateley for Variety

Criminal Minds” executive producer Erica Messer went to the show’s set Oct. 2 to address the crew. But the occasion was not, as she had hoped, to announce that CBS had ordered additional episodes for the series’ 13th season.

It was to inform crew members that at 4 p.m. Variety would publish a story about “Criminal Minds” director of photography Greg St. Johns and the sexual harassment, workplace abuse and retaliatory firing allegations against him. After saying that St. Johns would be taking time off as a result, she bemoaned that the allegations would go public amid a publicity push for the new season, which began Oct. 3 with the series’ 300th episode.

“It’s really s—-y timing that it’s happening on the eve of our 300th premiere,” Messer said, according to audio of the roughly two-minute talk obtained by Variety. “But we have our fabulous cast that’s going to go talk to all the press tomorrow.” She noted that the show’s actors would appear the next day at a media junket and on CBS’ “The Talk” to promote the premiere. “That will give us all that happy press that we want to get, because we still want to be celebrating the good in our ‘Criminal Minds’ family.”

Messer warned crew members that they may encounter “nasty comments being made about the show” and asked that they come to the executive producers if they had “concerns.” When she opened the floor to questions, none was asked. A source close to Messer said that what the showrunner was able to say to crew was constrained by liability concerns and a pending investigation by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing into a former crew member’s complaint that he was retaliated against for speaking up about sexual harassment that St. Johns subjected him to.

“We take these matters seriously and consistently remind employees of appropriate workplace behavior,” Messer and ABC Studios told Variety in a joint statement Oct. 7. “The executive producers of ‘Criminal Minds’ followed protocol as soon as they were made aware of the allegations and have been working closely with the studio to take any appropriate actions.”

The allegations against St. Johns — accused of groping and verbally abusing male crew members and firing those who complained — were part of what has become a drumbeat of stories about misconduct related to CBS. (“Criminal Minds” is a co-production of ABC Studios and CBS Television Studios, with ABC serving as the lead producer.) On the same day that Variety published its report on “Criminal Minds,” the Eye confirmed that it had parted ways with Brad Kern, an “NCIS: New Orleans” producer who had been accused of workplace misconduct. The next day, Vinnie Favale, a senior VP of talent at CBS Television Studios, was placed on leave following a CNN report in which he was accused of using obscene and homophobic language in workplace settings.

The ouster of CEO Leslie Moonves, accused of multiple instances of sexual harassment and assault in a pair of New Yorker articles, has put CBS under intense public scrutiny. It also prompted a significant change to the makeup of the company’s board — leading to an environment in which abusive behavior appears to be less tolerated and its victims less willing to keep quiet. Sources told Variety that on Oct. 3, amid the drip-drip of CBS-related misconduct news, employees at the company received yet another joint email from the two law firms hired by the board to conduct independent investigations into Moonves; the email asked them to get in touch with relevant concerns.

“We take these matters seriously and consistently remind employees of appropriate workplace behavior.”
Erica Messer, “Criminal Minds” executive producer

Revelations about problems on “Criminal Minds” and the allegations against Favale added to what insiders described as a widespread feeling of unease among employees. There remains skepticism about how significant an impact the outside investigation will have and whether it will uncover more disturbing evidence of misconduct at the highest levels. For months, CBS staffers have received a stream of emails from the law firms leading the investigation inviting people to come forward. There have been signs that staffers in specific departments on the East and West coasts have been called in for interviews, leading to speculation and rumors about senior executives being under scrutiny.

In a memo to employees Sept. 17, acting CEO Joe Ianniello wrote that when the investigation is completed, the company will act on its findings. “But there is no reason to wait on reassessing our culture,” he added, promising the implementation of “training techniques and new mechanisms for reporting workplace issues.”

Yet as the events of the past week have shown, the residue of the Moonves fallout is still being scraped off the CBS brand. Favale’s behavior dates back to 2015, with the talent exec being accused of making multiple offensive remarks during meetings related to “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” “I’ll never forget the day he told me he got four erections while watching Jennifer Hudson rehearse,” a former CBS executive told CNN. Although Kern’s alleged misconduct — including accusations of verbal harassment against women and making racially charged comments — was first reported on by Variety in December, CBS waited until May to act, and then demoted him from showrunner to consultant on the CBS Television Studios show. Last week’s move was a final parting of ways 10 months in the making.

And on the set of “Criminal Minds,” the surfacing of allegations against St. Johns — whom multiple current or former male crew members have accused of touching them inappropriately on the rear end, genitals or nipples — has not yet brought resolution. Messer, in her Oct. 2 address to the crew, said that St. Johns would take the remainder of that day as well as the following day off and, in regard to his future, added, “and we’ll be figuring out what that is.”

As of press time, St. Johns had yet to return to work on the show, and crew members had not been informed of any official change to his status.