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Unexpected Transition Gives CBS New Focus on Its Next Phase

Variety logo Variety 6/7/2017 Daniel Holloway
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Meet the new Eye. A little different from the old Eye. Maybe.

Last week, CBS pulled the trigger on a very un-CBS-like transition, saying goodbye to Entertainment president Glenn Geller in the wake of a health scare and replacing him with Kelly Kahl, the network’s longtime scheduling chief. Kahl is joined by Thom Sherman, recruited from the CW to head CBS programming under Kahl. The change is one that, prior to the mild heart attack Geller suffered in March, was anticipated by no one. But its outcome is a strong indicator  of where CBS is headed just weeks after CEO Leslie Moonves extended his contract with the company through 2021.

Fewer than two years into his tenure, Geller had yet to establish himself atop CBS Entertainment in the same way predecessor Nina Tassler had. She led the network through the development of its highest-rated comedy, “The Big Bang Theory,” and highest rated drama, “NCIS.” Each show is a deceptively innovative, sharply executed iteration of a CBS staple food — the multicamera sitcom and the hour-long crime procedural. Each is in its second decade on air. Neither has seen an obvious successor emerge from recent crops of new programming.

Speaking to Variety last week, Moonves said he began meeting with prospective senior executives shortly after Geller went on leave to recover from his heart attack. “There was a part of me that thought he may not want to come back,” he said. “I knew we couldn’t just assume that on June 1, Glenn is back. I started thinking about it, and I met with a few outside people on very general terms. I was thinking of this possibility.”

The promotion of Kahl indicates a desire to keep things running in much the same way they always have. Kahl has worked for Moonves since joining Lorimar Television as an intern in 1990, moving with him to Warner Bros. , then CBS. As one former CBS exec told Variety, “Kelly knows how to manage up to Leslie. He’s been doing it for 20 years.”

“At some point, they’re going to have to make some pretty significant changes to their schedule.”

Brad Adgate, media consultant

Kahl drew raves for presenting a strong public face for the network in Geller’s absence at the May upfront presentation. That was a part of the job with which Geller appeared to struggle at times, such as when he stumbled through tough questions about the network’s lack of on-screen diversity at last year’s CBS upfront press breakfast.

Kahl is a highly regarded executive whose expertise is in scheduling. In Sherman, Moonves has provided him with a strong right hand to manage development and programming across all genres. But it’s telling that Moonves — who traditionally promotes from within — reached over to the network’s half sibling CW, co-owned by CBS Corp. and Warner Bros., for the hire. “Thom has some ideas about expanding,” Moonves said. “He comes from a place where the programming is slightly different. We’ve had some very interesting philosophical conversations.”

Expansion may be called for. Although CBS has led all networks in average total primetime viewers for 14 of the past 15 seasons, 2015-16 saw it slip to third place in the 18-49 demographic, averaging a 1.8 rating in Nielsen live-plus-seven numbers — just two-tenths of a point better than fourth place ABC and down 22% from 2015-16 (when CBS benefited from the Super Bowl).

“At some point, they’re going to have to make some pretty significant changes to their schedule,” said media consultant Brad Adgate. “They didn’t do that this year.”

The biggest bet among the new 2017-18 series is “Young Sheldon,” a “Big Bang Theory” spinoff. And the freshman slate has done nothing to dispel criticism that CBS has done too little to advance on-screen diversity, boasting only one person of color in a lead role (Shemar Moore in “SWAT”) and no female leads. The CW, where Sherman led development, outpaced all broadcasters in percentage of lead roles for women and people of color.

Already, Kahl and Sherman have moved against the status quo, with current programming head Bridget Wiley departing the network June 1. But how much change they effect will ultimately be up to Moonves, who exercises final say on programming decisions at a detail level and relies heavily on known commodities when it comes to producers, casting directors and talent.

“We’ve been programming CBS similarly for a long time,” Moonves said. “Kelly knows what works here.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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