LEFT COAST BIAS: Moonves Reveals How He Chose Nogawski

When Roger King died suddenly last December, Leslie Moonves had one hell of a tough choice to make.

The CBS Corp. CEO had to decide which of two co-presidents would take over CBS Television Distribution, which virtually prints money for the company through shows like Oprah and Wheel of Fortune.

John Nogawski was the smooth salesman who had been with Paramount for two decades before the mergers with CBS and King World. Bob Madden was King’s longtime attorney and right hand, with strong ties to Oprah Winfrey and Sony Pictures Television (SPT) and their cash cow shows.

When Moonves picked Nogawski, while somehow getting Madden to stick around as well, he pulled off a coup that, in theory, puts his top pick in the big chair, while keeping Oprah and SPT happy. Now we’ll see how it all works out.

King died last Dec. 8; Moonves and the company naturally took some time to get over the shock. King had been out selling what would be his last project, The Doctors, almost to the day he died. Moonves knew he’d have a grace period, secure in the knowledge that Nogawski and Madden would keep the ship afloat.

Moonves was also was busy dealing with issues such as the writers’ strike, and drawing College Sports Television (CSTV) under the CBS Sports umbrella.

“I wanted to take my time,” Moonves told me last week. “I mean, Roger’s death was sudden. I wanted to think it through, think about structure and what would work best.”

Moonves knew from experience that some sort of partnership wasn’t going to work, a lesson he had learned first-hand thanks to his experience with co-president Tom Freston before the CBS-Viacom split. “We all know a two-headed monster never works, or rarely,” he said.

Weeks turned into months and rumors were flying. One week I heard that Madden would get the job because of his ties to Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, Sony and the ABC-owned stations. The next week it was that Nogawski was a better front man and the job was his.

It was Moonves’ preference to promote from within. Still, big external names swirled, such as Sony Pictures Television chief Steve Mosko.

By early March, Moonves was ready to act. People were, as he said, “waiting for us to say how this was going to work.”

He wanted a resolution to quell internal as well as external issues. It was no secret that both execs were gunning for the top job, and impatience was spreading. One CBS TD insider compared it to the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton rivalry. Many simply wanted it to end. The last thing Moonves wanted was for any unrest to hurt the company.

“I don’t think it had, but would it have down the road? Possibly. It was time to get it done.” So Moonves went with Nogawski, the salesman.

“They both bring a lot to the table, but those divisions should be headed by salesmen,” Moonves said of his choice. “Ultimately the job is about a lot of things, but a lot of it has to do with sales and John is a super salesman. But I don’t want to dismiss it as just that. They both have a lot of great skills.”

Moonves informed Nogawski three weeks ago. That, of course, was the easy part. His challenge was to retain Madden, and the comfort level he had with Oprah and Sony.

Though Madden had 18 months left on his deal, it was Moonves’ job to tell him he had lost out, and would now be reporting to the guy who beat him for the job. Moonves offered Madden oversight of the Harpo and Sony partnerships. Still, he’d be reporting to Nogawski.

“Bob was a grownup about the whole thing,” Moonves said. “I explained to him that this was a tough decision, but there is a big role for him at the company.”

Grownup or no, it could have all blown up for Moonves. But Madden agreed to the new role, and Moonves understandably breathed a sigh of relief.

Since 2006, when CBS and King World and Paramount Domestic Television came together under one roof, it has been a slow process to meld both the personalities and the cultures—a common challenge in any merger. Now the task for Moonves and Nogawski is to put the tumultuous, bittersweet time behind them and concentrate on what they do best: dominating the marketplace. Nogawski’s first order of business should be to improve his relationships with the Oprah and Sony people.

But the relationship Moonves will be eyeing most closely is between Nogawski and Madden. How will they work together in the new structure? How will this affect the rest of the company? Moonves is pleased that after the decision, Nogawski reached out to Madden.

“We had two cultures that had been coming together, so it was really important they worked this out,” Moonves explained. “Both are really valuable guys.”

To which he added with great understatement, “This is always a difficult situation.”

Send comments to Ben.Grossman@reedbusiness.com.