CBS Has A Brogramming Problem — & You Can Blame Les Moonves

Photo: Warner Bros. TV / Chuck Lorre Prod./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
SWAT. SEAL Team. NCIS. The other NCIS. The third NCIS. CBS is obviously TV’s leading boys club, which makes all the more sense after learning of the many sexual harassment allegations against chairman and CEO of the CBS Corporation, Leslie “Les” Moonves. As Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker exposé reveals, the network allegedly has a habit of protecting and promoting predatory men, from 60 Minutes executive producer and CBS News chairman Jeff Fager to Brad Kern, NCIS: New Orleans showrunner and executive producer. Thanks to Moonves, CBS also allegedly has a tendency of cutting off relationships with women who rebuff its leader’s “violent” sexual advances, as Emmy nominee Illeana Douglas told Farrow.
But, we shouldn’t be surprised that Moonves reportedly values watching men flourish over anything involving women, whether that be their safety or success. On a network that once gave us the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cagney & Lacey, and Maude, CBS slowly became a network for men, by men since Moonves joined the network in 1995 as president of entertainment.
As we were reminded in 2017, when every single new CBS series was headlined by a man, it is now rare to see a woman leading a CBS show. About 35 woman-led series have premiered on the network since Moonves, who once announced, “creating a schedule with hit shows is still the center of my job,'' arrived at CBS in the hopes of turning a last-place network into the most-watched channel on television. That is a goal he succeeded in while, as the math proves, debuting about one-and-a-half series a year with a woman star; on average, CBS debuts a whopping nine new series a year under Moonves’ control.
Comparatively, ABC, a network that happily handed over an entire night to Shonda Rhimes, has premiered well over 35 women-powered series since just 2011, from hits like Scandal and Once Upon A Time to short-lived cult favorites like Selfie and Downward Dog.
Since 1995, it has become even rarer to see any of CBS' few woman-starring fledgling series pop or truly make it past their first season. In fact, a list of the woman-led series that debuted after Moonves joined CBS sounds like a parade of TV Whos. There were two Martha Stewart-ish parodies that crashed and burned during different months in 1998: Style & Substance and The Simple Life (no, not that Simple Life. This one had Judith Light). 2006’s Courting Alex and 2009’s Accidentally On Purpose marked two failed Jenna Elfman vehicles. The quickly disappeared Pearl, of 1996, and Bette, of 2000, gave starring roles to beloved celebrities like, respectively, Rhea Perlman and Bette Midler.
Dramas starring women have tended to have a similarly short shelf life on The Eye. 2012’s Made In Jersey, about a young woman from the Garden State trying to make it in the posh New York City law game, was pulled from the schedule after just two episodes. 2017’s Doubt, starring Katherine Heigl as a different Big Apple lawyer, was also yanked from airwaves after a mere two episodes. Supergirl appeared on CBS for a single season in 2015 to 2016 before it was shipped to the CW to join the rest of its Berlantiverse DC superhero brethren. The comic book drama lost the fantastic Calista Flockhart, who served a supporting role as Supergirl’s (Melissa Benoist) tough as nails boss, in the move. Flockhart’s Cat Grant was replaced by a man, reporter Snapper Carr (Ian Gomez).
Since 1995 just a few CBS shows about women have managed to claw their way to a truly lengthy run. There’s 1999’s Judging Amy, 2006’s The New Adventures of Old Christine, 2009’s The Good Wife, 2011’s 2 Broke Girls, 2013’s Mom, and 2014’s Madam Secretary. Please note the years-long gaps between most of these breakout shows, and the fact a new one hasn’t arisen in four years. The most recent CBS woman-led so-called “successes,” Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight, were denied the weekly national platform of the linear network and were instead dropped into the niche pay-to-watch digital offering CBS All Access.
While Moonves defended the dearth of women on his network last year, saying, “I think we’re fine in terms of the amount of women who are behind the camera, in front of the camera,” clearly, there aren’t actually that many women in front of the camera. No one is getting credit for giving Lucy Liu and Katharine McPhee second-string leading roles in male-dominated procedurals made for dads.
However, when it comes to getting men’s stories on CBS, the road couldn’t be easier. This is the network that cannot stop going to the well of lowest common denominator dude comedy from Chuck Lorre. Heaven and earth were moved to keep Two And Half Men on the air for 12 entire years, even after star Charlie Sheen’s very public meltdown. In a petty, immature move the sitcom murdered Sheen’s character by hitting him with a truck, opening up the door for Ashton Kutcher to enter the scene. While Two And Half ran on a cool bro-lame bro schtick, Lorre’s Big Bang Theory, now entering its own twelfth season with no end in sight, is fueled by nerd-bro humor. Last year’s Young Sheldon, also a Lorre product, asks, “What was this nerd-bro like as a wee boy?” Of course, Young Sheldon will return for a second season this fall.
Since Moonves joined the network in the mid-90s to improve its last place status, CBS has proven its dedication to men’s stories extends far past its appreciation for the comedic stylings of Chuck Lorre. In 2010, CBS was the only network willing to give $#* ! My Dad Says, inspired by a popular Twitter feed about a politically incorrect, boorish seventy-something-year-old man (play by William Shatner), a try. At that same time, ABC was offering audiences Happy Endings, with a multiracial cast that would eventually explore queer relationships, and FOX debuted Bob’s Burgers, whose undeniable breakout character is Tina Belcher (Dan Mintz), a preteen girl obsessed with butts and writing erotic friend fiction.
The only reason $#* ! My Dad Says didn’t enjoy a long life on CBS is due to the fact it was a truly awful show and ratings failure that even disappointed its creator. But, worry not, the implosion of $#* ! My Dad Says didn’t scare CBS away from stories about men. The next year they premiered comedies Rob, with Rob Schneider, and How To Be A Gentleman, along with dramas A Gifted Man, NYC 22, and Person Of Interest. While only one of those series stuck, Elementary, Under The Dome, Vegas, Partners, and Golden Boy, all premiered during the 2012-2013 season, joining 12 already-established programs already starring men. That quintet of newbies all also starred men.
It’s important to remember that CBS wasn’t always such a bro-y place. Monday nights in 1990 and 1991, just a few years before Moonves’ CBS arrival, viewers would find a full two-hour block of programs made by women, about women, on The Eye. First up was the iconic Murphy Brown, about a complicated woman news magazine anchor, which was created by the incomparable Diane English. English, as Joy Press’s Stealing The Show reveals, insisted on a having her titular lead, played by Candice Bergen, be a middle-aged woman rather than a nubile 20-something-year-old actress for complexity’s sake. Those are the kinds of boundary-pushing creative choices audiences get when a woman is in charge.
Designing Women, from Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, followed Murphy Brown and centered on four women leading a design firm in Atlanta. Closing out the evening was legal drama The Trials of Rosie O'Neill, which was created by Beth Sullivan, along with two men: Joe Cacaci and Barney Rosenzweig.
All three of these series were awards show gold for CBS, consistently picking up numerous Emmy and Golden Globes wins. Elsewhere on the schedule that year was Murder, She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury, Bagdad Cafe with Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton, and primetime soaps like Knot's Landing and Dallas, which only work thanks to their fierce, relentless women. Two years later, Fran Drescher’s beloved The Nanny would premiere.
This past season, only an hour-and-a-half of CBS’ weekly programming was unquestionably woman-focused thanks to Mom, Lorre’s only CBS series co-created by a woman (Gemma Baker), and Madam Secretary by Barbara Hall. This upcoming season, Moonves’ CBS will amp up to three whole hours of pro-woman programming per week with the addition of comedy Fam, starring Nina Dobrev, and the heralded return of Murphy Brown. Two new procedurals, FBI and The Code, have a deeply co-ed cast. In case you were wondering, CBS also aired 20 hours of programming with an undeniable male lead a week during the 2017-2018 season. For 2018 into 2019, it will be just under 20 hours.
One can try to blame CBS’s woman problem on something larger than Les Moonves. After all, the chairman is just one man. But, Les Moonves is CBS. So, its problems are his problems. If you don’t believe that, you simply missed one of the most chilling insider quotes from Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker essay: “There are no bridges at CBS. There is just Les Moonves.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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