Les Moonves should resign.
Yes, resign, even though the CBS chairman/CEO is hands down today’s most adept television topper and successful entertainment titan. Yes, resign, even though he is a provocative programmer and a rakish charmer who used to have reporters wrapped around his little finger. Yes, resign, since it has become painfully obvious over recent months that this irredeemable creature of show biz has demonstrated a deplorable disregard for the special public responsibility required of a network broadcaster. Yes, resign, since his once-sterling credibility is an open question predating even Janet’s Super Bowl peepshow. Yes, resign, because he is either so improbably ignorant that he is the mogul equivalent of Homer Simpson expressing “D’oh!” about the recent brouhahas embroiling his network from Reagangate to Nipplegate, or he is so immensely craven that he thinks he can get away with all of it as long as he doesn’t cop to anything. No matter which is true, Moonves’ strategy (besides airing episodes of CSI 24/7 to make CBS into the most-watched network) is to blame everyone else instead of the guy in charge.
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It can be argued, of course, that CBS’s parent-company honcho, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, was behind the decision to turn over the Super Bowl halftime entertainment entirely to MTV since the geezer is the music network’s biggest cheerleader. (MTV’s expansion into Asia was for a long time Redstone’s personal obsession.) But even so, all the current crap has happened on Moonves’ watch. So, though his contract as the head of the network runs through 2007, he needs to pull a Howell Raines, follow the recent lead of the BBC heads, and fall on his sword.
This is about more than an exposed tit or the Federal Communications Commission investigation just announced by that boob FCC chairman Michael Powell (who ridiculously is apoplectic over a flashdance but not over a future where Big Media mutates into Monstrous Media). This is about callousness and coarseness and candor — words that appear to have lost their meaning to someone as filled with hubris and as unable to feel shame as Moonves, a former actor who annually stars in a movie shown at the CBS upfront showcase for advertisers; who repeatedly plays himself on TV (on a rival ABC episode of The Practice, for instance, he was kidnapped and held for ransom by infotainment terrorist Andie MacDowell); a show-biz insider who pals around only with others of the Industry rich and powerful; a bicoastal philistine who used to live in a Brentwood mansion and is right now looking at opulent Malibu beach houses.
Callousness, because in a scant 18 months he has managed to piss off Appalachians (over an idea to do a real-life Beverly Hillbillies show), and Latinos (by scheduling the Latin Grammies on the same night as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala, causing some performers to renege on commitments to the legislative fund-raiser), and Cubans (a joy ride to off-limits Havana with other Hollywood bigwigs to dine with Castro came under investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department), and Jews (for greenlighting that Hitler miniseries). Then he managed to erase the line between news and entertainment and commerce by putting on the Victoria’s Secret advertorial lingerie show, by offering a tasteless package of inducements to land an interview with rescued POW Jessica Lynch (including a two-hour documentary produced by CBS News, and a concert special hosted by MTV in her hometown featuring Ashanti and, possibly, Ja Rule), and by negotiating what, according to reliable reports, was an extra $1 mil to induce Michael Jackson to give an interview to 60 Minutes on top of the multimillion-dollar payment for a music special. He topped all that off by buffooning the Reagans in that TV movie and then backing down when the right wing rebelled.
Coarseness, because in order to make sure we’re entertained, Moonves agreed to air yet another edition of Survivor — this time a “Superstar” version — even though producer Mark Burnett boasts how much he manipulates the game show. He also sanctioned some of the most grisly CSI corpse shots ever seen in prime time. To round out his Black Sunday, Moonves rejected a MoveOn.org ad which innocuously depicted future generations paying for today’s deficits, while he accepted the most tasteless of beer commercials featuring a horse farting in a woman’s face. And while we’re on the subject of female denigration, Moonves remains silent about the rape implications of what happened at the Super Bowl’s halftime — having a man tear off a woman’s top while she looks shocked and scrambles to cover up. (Imagine countless boys trying to reenact that scene on unsuspecting girls the following Monday in schools around the country.) Then again, Moonves professionally and personally crossed the line of propriety when, of all the women in the world from which to choose, he began a romance not long ago with a network underling, The Early Show’s co-anchor Julie Chen (and broke up his 24-year marriage in the process).
Candor, because from the look of things even his own employees don’t appear to trust the integrity of Moonves or CBS, once widely touted as the “Tiffany” network. On Tuesday night, within hours of Moonves’ issuing a staff memo describing “how shocked, disappointed and dismayed I was about the incident” and pledging an internal probe (though the MTV Web site promised “shocking moments”), CBS’s own David Letterman used his show as a forum to opine: “It’s all a lie. It was all planned beforehand. And CBS signed off on it and loved the idea.” Asked to comment, Moonves’ mouthpiece, CBS executive vice president Gil Schwartz (a.k.a. writer Stanley Bing of Esquire and now Fortune and those sardonic business books), said, “Dave is a very funny guy.” Told that Letterman wasn’t laughing during or after he made the remark, Schwartz sighed, “I don’t know what to tell you.”
He did know how to respond, though, when asked whether Moonves should resign: He started to hang up the phone. “We’re the number-one network. We have more viewers than anyone else. It’s an outrageous and moronic question not worthy of an answer.”
In other words: Les is making money. That should be enough. Shut up.
It is exactly this sleazy attitude which has long permeated show biz and led to its most deplorable moments, ranging from keeping David Begelman as head of a studio even though he committed fraud, to supporting Michael Ovitz despite his bullying and blacklisting business tactics, to dealing with crooked and anti-Semitic Giancarlo Parretti after he bought MGM, to propping up investment broker Dana Giacchetto when there was ample evidence he was fleecing clientele, and so on. But in recent years this shut-up-and-put-up stance has especially corrupted the networks and the previously maintained broadcast standards that they pledged to uphold as the price for using the airwaves that belong to all of us.
When it comes to Slime TV, it’s genuinely hard to say if NBC, ABC and Fox have cleaner hands than CBS. But even The New York Times this week suggested they do (even though Friends, in the previously sacrosanct 8 p.m. family hour, uses bitch in its dialogue, and NYPD Blue shows ass and talks about “assholes,” and Fox News continues to sneer at the Democratic presidential candidates). Those powers-that-be may have to exit eventually. But Moonves should be out the door first.
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