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The Steady Rise and Sudden Fall of Leslie Moonves

The Steady Rise and Sudden Fall of Leslie Moonves

Leslie Moonves had a strong idea of what a network television program should be. He liked his sitcoms broad, with larger-than-life characters and big laughs. The dramas he selected featured protagonists who scored a win before the credits rolled.Unlike the more nuanced shows that formed television’s second golden age — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking…


Leslie Moonves had a strong idea of what a network television program should be. He liked his sitcoms broad, with larger-than-life characters and big laughs. The dramas he selected featured protagonists who scored a win before the credits rolled.

Unlike the more nuanced shows that formed television’s second golden age — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” — the programs backed by Mr. Moonves during his years at CBS depended on clear-cut villains and heroes.

Following that formula, he took CBS from last place in the ratings to the most-watched network. In the process, he made himself into perhaps the most powerful television executive of the last two decades.

But real life does not resemble the shows that Mr. Moonves put on the air. On Sunday night, his 23-year run at CBS came toa sudden end.

While a boardroom fight challenged Mr. Moonves’s hold on the company earlier this year, his undoing was mainlythe result of two articlesin The New Yorker that included allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by 12 women. Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ronan Farrow, the articles presented a portrait of an executive whose public persona was profoundly at odds with the predator he became in private, according to his accusers.

Mr. Moonves did not reach the heights of the television industry without knowing how to navigate the terrain and guard his turf. Days after the first New Yorker exposé appeared online in late July, heput on a brave face, dining with his wife, the CBS host Julie Chen, at Nobu Malibu, a hot spot for Hollywood executives.

With that showing, he was apparently hoping to convince his fellow power players that he was unrattled, that nothing had changed, that he was not going to come undone in the manner of other influential men — Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Roger Ailes — who had lost their positions after facing similar accusations.

The first of Mr. Farrow’s articles included on-the-record accusations from six women in the entertainment industry, among them the actress Illeana Douglas. It only wounded Mr. Moonves, with few people in the business willing to pronounce his career dead until there was absolutely no doubt. In a late August interview with The New York Times, for instance, Candice Bergen, the star of the recently rebooted CBS sitcom “Murphy Brown,” said, “I would really hate to see Les go.”

By Sunday night, however, hours after the publication of the second New Yorker article, which included detailed allegations from six more women, the executive had lost whatever support he may have had, and there was nothing he could do to save his career.

Mr. Moonves, 68, grew up in Valley Stream on Long Island. His father ran a gas station. He began his career in the 1970s on the other side of the camera, playing a heavy on “The Six Million Dollar Man” and a Mexican pearl diver on “Cannon.” But the life of an actor, which depends on the decisions of others, was not for him.

In the 1980s, Mr. Moonves landed a high-ranking job at Lorimar Television. When a sitcom produced by the company, “Full House,” got big ratings on ABC, he was on his way to becoming a Hollywood power player.

But according to Mr. Farrow’s reporting, his early success coincided with instances of sexual misconduct. Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb, who was an executive at Lorimar, told The New Yorker that Mr. Moonves had forced her to perform oral sex on him. She filed a criminal complaint with the Los Angeles Police Department last year.

In the mid-1990s, when he was running the Warner Bros. television division, Mr. Moonves had 22 series on the air, including megahits like “ER” and “Friends.” New York magazine put him on the cover,calling him Mr. TV, and Mr. Moonves kept a framed copy in his Manhattan office.

But while he was becoming the public face of the industry, the instances of alleged sexual misconduct continued. Jessica Pallingston, an assistant at Warner Bros. in those years, accused Mr. Moonves of forcing her to perform oral sex on him and essentially destroying her career. (Mr. Moonves called the accusations against him “untrue.”)

He moved into an executive role at CBS and got to work rebuilding the last-place network. “A slow, brick-by-brick process,” he called it. It took five years before things started to click, with the premiere episode of the reality series “Survivor.”

Then came the hit police-procedural show “C.S.I.” and its successful spinoffs. There were also the sitcoms — four-camera productions, with plenty of laugh-track laughs — “Two and a Half Men,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory.” For the last 10 TV seasons, CBS has been the most-watched network.

Mr. Moonves continued to have a strong hand in putting together the prime-time lineup as chief executive, a task other corporate leaders have left to their programming teams.

At the peak of his success, he carried himself as a living caricature of the larger-than-life Hollywood executive, often prone to issuing sweeping pronouncements. “Americans do not like dark,” hetold The Times in 2005. “I understand why creative people like dark, but American audiences don’t like dark.” And his lineups reflected his traditionalist’s notion of what audiences wanted, with Mr. Moonves seeing to it that even the shows centered on grisly murders were not too dark.

“The morgue on ‘C.S.I.: Miami’ looks like a restaurant,” he said. “It may be an odd thing to say, but it looks like a fun place to be.”

And, yes, the easily identifiable good guys on his shows were usually guys. Until recently, CBSwas besiegedwith accusations of having predominantly white leading cast members in its prime time shows, lagging competitors in an industry with a dismal track record concerning diversity.

While excelling as a network programmer, Mr. Moonves survived a series of changes at Black Rock, as the network’s Manhattan headquarters are known. Through it all, he has kept up a tradition at CBS, which was built in the mid-20th century by the similarly domineering William S. Paley. When Mr. Moonves’s subordinates told of how they went about making key decisions, they said things like, “I only have to please one man.”

Mr. Moonves’s last big public moment before his downfall occurred in May at Carnegie Hall, for the annual event known as the upfronts. He took the stage to promote the fall lineup before an audience made up primarily of advertisers. He seemed in his element, although everyone in the crowd knew he was locked in a legal battle with Shari Redstone, the controlling shareholder of the CBS Corporation and the president of its parent company, National Amusements.

The corporate tensions had only raised the dramatic stakes, however, and Mr. Moonves reveled in a prolonged ovation from the 2,000 people in the seats. After working the crowd briefly, he said: “This is the story of the true survivor in this crazy media business we love: broadcasting. The big tent.”

What he did not know was that the tent was not big enough, in the age of the #MeToo movement, which has given a voice to women who had long been silent, to keep him inside much longer.

On Monday, the nearly 13,000 employees of the CBS Corporation had a new boss: Joseph Ianniello, a company veteran who was named acting chief executive on Sunday.

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