Moonves Out as CBS Chief as New Harassment Claims Surface

The months-long saga concerning the fate of CBS chair and CEO Les Moonves after claims he sexually harassed several women decades ago played out to its inevitable conclusion Sunday with his departure and a pledge by the company and Moonves himself to donate $20 million to the #MeToo movement.

Leslie Moonves

Leslie Moonves

Moonves’ departure is effective immediately. Long-time CBS chief executive Joseph Ianniello will replace him as president and acting CEO as the search for a permanent chief begins. Ianniello, who joined CBS in 1997, most recently served as chief operating officer and has long been Moonves’ choice as his replacement.

Moonves was first accused of sexually harassing six women in a New Yorker magazine piece in July, who said the former CBS chief forcibly kissed and touched them on several occasions over a period of decades, and when they rebuffed his advances he threatened to ruin their careers. Moonves admitted in July that he may have, several decades ago, made unwanted advances toward female associates, but denied ever tampering with their careers. While he apologized for the unwanted advances, he noted that he has always “abided by the principle that no means no” and never used his position to derail anyone’s career.

News of Moonves departure came about three hours after the New Yorker published a new piece on Sunday, where six additional women came out to say Moonves had sexually harassed or sexually assaulted them. 

Among the allegations were that Moonves had forced women to perform oral sex on him and that he exposed himself to them without their consent. Moonves denied the allegations, adding in a statement that he had a consensual sexual relationship with three of the women about 25 years ago before he came to CBS.

“In my 40 years of work, I have never before heard of such disturbing accusations,” Moonves said in his statement to the New Yorker. “I can only surmise they are surfacing now for the first time, decades later, as part of a concerted effort by others to destroy my name, my reputation, and my career. Anyone who knows me knows that the person described in this article is not me.”

But despite his denials, the latest New Yorker piece appears to be the final straw in what has been a stunning collapse for the CBS executive. Moonves has steered CBS to the top spot among broadcast networks over a 15-year span and as early as last year was considered to be practically untouchable. In the past two months, Moonves has been toppled from the broadcast mountain, and CBS’s stock has plunged as the network, a perennial overall ratings champ, has been thrust into uncertainty.

CBS initiated an internal investigation into the allegations after the first New Yorker piece came out in July and while that is still ongoing, reports said the company was working with Moonves to orchestrate his departure from the broadcaster. On Sunday, those efforts were finalized.

Related: Analyst: Moonves Exit, Viacom Combination Could Be in CBS Future 

As part of the deal, Moonves will receive no exit package until the completion of the internal investigation, and the company said it and Moonves will donate $20 million to one or more organizations that support the #MeToo movement and equality for women in the workplace. The donation, which will be made immediately, has been deducted from any severance benefits that may be due Moonves following the board’s ongoing independent investigation led by Covington & Burling and Debevoise & Plimpton. Moonves will not receive any severance benefits at this time (other than certain fully accrued and vested compensation and benefits), the company said, and  any future payments will depend on the outcome of the investigation. 

CBS and its largest shareholder National Amusements also tied up several loose ends that have hounded the companies for months. CBS agreed to drop a lawsuit that would have challenged NAI’s voting control of the broadcaster and NAI agreed not to push for a merger between CBS and NAI’s other media holding – Viacom – for at least two years.

CBS and NAI also agreed to name six new independent members to the broadcaster’s board of directors -- Candace Beinecke, Barbara Byrne, Brian Goldner, former Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons, Susan Schuman and Strauss Zelnick.

CBS’s new board will consist of 11 independent directors and 2 NAI-affiliated directors. In addition to lead independent director Bruce Gordon, William Cohen, Gary Countryman, Linda Griego and Martha Minow will remain on the board. Shari Redstone and Robert Klieger also will remain on the board as NAI’s representatives.

“CBS is an organization of talented and dedicated people who have created one of the most successful media companies in the world,” vice chair Shari Redstone said in a statement. “Today’s resolution will benefit all shareholders, allowing us to focus on the business of running CBS – and transforming it for the future. We are confident in Joe’s ability to serve as acting CEO and delighted to welcome our new directors, who bring valuable and diverse expertise and a strong commitment to corporate governance.”