Les Moonves Was Gone, but Not Forgotten, at First CBS Upfront Under New Leadership

Execs alluded to a 'wild ride' as they touted the company's bright future

Stephen Colbert celebrated his late-night ratings victory, and cracked a joke about his former boss. - Credit by John P. Filo/CBS
Headshot of Sara Jerde

There was much that was familiar about CBS’ upfront presentation on Wednesday afternoon, including the location (New York’s Carnegie Hall), the pitch to advertisers (once again, it’s the most-watched network on TV in total viewers) and the mix of new shows (procedurals, spinoffs of popular franchises and broad-skewing comedies). But there was also a huge difference this year: For the first time in two decades, the upfront did not include former CEO Leslie Moonves, who departed the company in September, after more than a dozen accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct.

The changes to the company’s executive team were addressed at the very beginning of the presentation by the network’s NFL announcers Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, who introduced the new lineup as if it were a football team.

That included a mention of Moonves’ replacement, Joseph Ianniello, whose acting CEO role was just extended through the end of the year, as CBS’ new “head coach,” to loud applause from the crowd of buyers and CBS affiliate members.

As Jo Ann Ross, CBS’ president and chief advertising revenue officer, told Adweek a week ago, Moonves’ lack of presence at the company and the upfront doesn’t change its mission. Ross didn’t name check her former boss onstage, where she kept with the opening sports theme and appeared in costume, dressed up as a football quarterback with a bedazzled helmet, jersey and sparkly boots.

But she did allude to the company’s eventful year. “It’s been a wild ride since we last met for CBS [and] for our industry,” she said.

It took about 30 minutes into the upfront for Moonves’ name to come up. And when it did, it was as a joke delivered by Stephen Colbert, who said he was given a stack of research ahead of the presentation about how well CBS performed this year but that he didn’t have time to get through it all.

“So, I just read Bill Barr’s four-page summary. Turns out, Les Moonves—totally exonerated,” Colbert said to polite laughter from the audience. “I had to do one,” Colbert said a bit sheepishly. One person in the crowd turned to his colleague and said, “Good.”

During Ross’ time onstage, she made a point to say that unlike several of its competitors, who spent their upfront presentations talking about plans to roll out streaming services during the next year (including NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia), CBS has been in the streaming space for several years.

“Here at CBS, we’re not crawling in the streaming space; we’re already running,” Ross said. “And we‘ve been ad supported since we started five years ago. We’re also moving full steam ahead on addressable TV, helping target your customers at the household level.”

It’s something CBS hopes to do with its new fall schedule, which includes five new shows: three comedies and two dramas.

CBS aired trailers of most fall and midseason shows and had cast members come out to speak about each of them. Two of the new shows elicited the biggest response from the crowd, including  a comedy called The Unicorn about a man navigating love after his wife’s death, which kept the crowd laughing at several points during the teaser.

New drama Evil, a psychological mystery from the creators of The Good Wife and The Good Fight also resonated with the audience, making attendees scream out in horror and jump in their seats.

Also debuting this fall is drama All Rise and comedies Bob Hearts Abishola and Carol’s Second Act.

CBS is rolling out three additional shows during midseason: comedy Broke, FBI spinoff FBI: Most Wanted and drama Tommy, starring Edie Falco.

The network also said it was moving Big Bang Theory prequel Young Sheldon to Thursdays at 8 p.m. in the fall, replacing The Big Bang Theory, which will air its final episode Thursday.

The Big Bang Theory received a special send-off during the presentation, as the cast came onstage for one final upfront appearance after a special in memoriam-style video looking back at the series. The cast and co-creator Chuck Lorre received only the second full standing ovation of upfronts week—only the female Olympians at NBCUniversal’s event were greeted as enthusiastically.

The Big Bang cast was moved by the response. Actress Kaley Cuoco seemed to wipe away tears.

“This has been an unbelievable journey for us,” Lorre said. “We’re very grateful and we realize how lucky we are.”

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.