Hillary Atkin

CBS Bites the Bullet, Previews Its New Programming Against a Backdrop of Scandal

Jul 30, 2018

It was early on a Sunday, the morning after the Television Critics Association awards, where celebrating often goes late into the night after the ceremonies. But instead of a leisurely a.m. before getting back to business of the summer press tour at the Beverly Hilton, all eyes were alert and focused on CBS Entertainment chief Kelly Kahl as he took the podium under the intense scrutiny of the assembled journalists.

They all wanted to know what was going to happen to his longtime boss, Les Moonves, Chairman and CEO of CBS Corp., in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against him that have roiled the entire company and have included accusations of a top-down culture of complicity.

It was rather remarkable that Kahl appeared at all, especially since two of the four big broadcast networks had decided to scrap their executive sessions at TCA, and CBS likely considered canceling its under the circumstances. (Fox had previously put forth chief execs Gary Newman and Dana Walden. Later in the tour, ABC and NBC presented only programming panels without network executives.)

“We wanted to be here,” began Kahl, for whom this was likely the most fraught of any public appearance he’s had to make on behalf of CBS. “Thousands of talented writers, producers and crews have been prepping for this for months.”

He went on to address the Moonves situation head-on, including the working environment at the network, which he claimed had no systemic problem with harassment and described as a “collaborative, inclusive, safe workplace.”

“Leslie has been an excellent boss and a mentor for a long time. He put me in this job. At the same time, we must respect the voices that come forward. All allegations need to be and are being taken seriously,” Kahl said. He was the first CBS executive to speak publicly about the allegations since the July 27 New Yorker magazine story that reported on six women allegedly sexually harassed by Moonves, with some incidents dating back to the 1980s.

The report led the CBS Board of Directors to hire two law firms to investigate the workplace culture and Moonves, while he retains the job he’s held since 2006.

While not commenting specifically on the individual allegations, Kahl said that many female colleagues had told him that they were saddened by the reports. “They said it does not represent their experience at CBS,” he said.

He said he wanted the press tour to proceed so that the network’s new program launches get their due. Here are some of the highlights of what CBS presented:

Prolific producer Dick Wolf takes his formidable procedural skills back to The Eye for the first time since 1993 with “FBI.”

“There is no more beachfront real estate at NBC,” joked Wolf, who went on to relate that his uncle was an FBI agent in the 1950s and ’60s and was someone Wolf idolized.

“We’re celebrating troops on the ground, the New York office that has 13,000 agents. People will get a realistic view of how that office operates. An enormous amount of their time is spent preventing things we don’t know about,” Wolf said of the show, which stars Missy Peregrym, Zeeko Zaki, Ebonee Noel and Jeremy Sisto.

“I’m convinced it’s going to be another franchise,” said Sisto. “The most fascinating thing is how the FBI is able to facilitate their network so that they can operate in cooperation swiftly without any delay, something that gives me faith in them as crime-fighting group.”

Murphy Brown” made headlines several decades ago, and the reboot with much of the original cast — Candice Bergen, Faith Ford, Joe Regalbuto and Grant Shaud — is certain to be equally newsworthy when it premieres in the fall.

The cast, including new members Jake McDorman and Nik Dodani, along with creator and executive producer Diane English had just flown in from New York after shooting the first episode.

“It’s been very emotional for the old guys,” Bergen said. “We moved to New York because I have to be in New York. We came onto Murphy’s soundstage in Queens and we all got tears in our eyes. Murphy is so important to all of us, so to go back, we’re just grateful.”

English pointed out that when the original show left the air in 1998 after a 10-year run cable news was just getting started, although many would argue that it had made its mark during coverage of the 1990 Persian Gulf War, more than a decade after CNN was founded.

She said putting characters in the modern-day TV newsroom environment will allow them to work in topical commentary on controversial issues, including freedom of the press and the repercussions of the #MeToo movement — and also offered her thoughts on the CBS situation.

“None of us have had any negative experience in that regard it CBS, and I go back to the Bill Paley days,” she said, referring to the founder of the network. “I never experienced any kind of sexual misconduct personally or misogyny and as far as I know, no one on the crew has.”

Another CBS comedy is set in the home rather than in the office. “The Neighborhood” looks at many angles as a white family moves into a traditionally black neighborhood and is based on the experiences of executive producer Jim Reynolds.

The series stars Cedric the Entertainer, who is also an executive producer, Tichina Arnold, Beth Behrs and Max Greenfield as the two main couples at the center of the sitcom.

“What I discovered in that process [of moving to a gentrifying neighborhood] is that we sometimes forget the power of humanity, kindness, being a good neighbor — and wanting to bring that to TV again,” said Reynolds. “It’s a show about neighbors, families and friendship. The core of it is about human relationships.”

Cedric’s take was integral to the show’s development. “The main thing that was missing was the actual point of view of the black guy,” he said. “That’s where we started to get real — to laugh and talk about experiences. We get into the human relationship side and how to live in harmony. We see gentrification in places like East L.A. and Brooklyn, poster children of ‘hoods being taken over. In that space, we thought we would open up a conversation.”

“I wanted to work with Cedric and I really liked Jim’s intent — it’s freaking cool,” said Arnold, who’s been a stalwart in other popular family comedies including “Martin,” “Survivor’s Remorse” and “Everybody Hates Chris.”

CBS also showcased “God Friended Me” starring Brandon Michael Hall, “Happy Together” with Damon Wayans Jr. and another reboot of a classic television series, “Magnum P.I.,” with Jay Hernandez stepping into the legendary role once filled by Tom Selleck.

CBS All Access presented “Tell Me a Story,” a fairy tale-inspired psychological series executive produced by Kevin Williamson (known for the “Scream” film franchise and “Dawson’s Creek”) and starring Dania Ramirez and Billy Magnussen. Set in modern-day New York City, it takes classic fairy tales and reimagines them as dark tales of revenge, loss, greed, love — and murder.

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