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Embattled CBS chief Les Moonves silent on accusations in first public statements

Moonves did speak on the call but concentrated on the financials of the company and its new projects during his opening statements.
Image: Les Moonves
CBS president Leslie Moonves attends the CBS Network 2015 Programming Upfront at The Tent at Lincoln Center on May 13, 2015, in New York.Evan Agostini / Invision/AP file

Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, did not address misconduct allegations against him during the company's earnings call on Thursday, his first opportunity to speak publicly since the allegations were first made public.

"In light of pending litigation and other matters, and on the advice of counsel, the scope of today's call and any questions will be limited to the quarterly results of the company," said Adam Townsend, head of investor relations at CBS, during the call.

Moonves did speak on the call but concentrated on the financials of the company and its new projects during his opening statements. Analysts on the call asked questions about the company's financials and future but did not touch on the allegations.

The New Yorker on Friday reported that six women, four of whom spoke on the record, have accused Moonves of sexual harassment or misconduct from the 1980s to the 2000s. Of these allegations, four accused Moonves of forcible touching or kissing, and two allege sexual misconduct or harassment.

Moonves said in a statement to The New Yorker: "I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected — and abided by the principle — that 'no' means 'no,' and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career."

On Wednesday night, the CBS board announced it had hired two law firms, Covington & Burling and Debevoise & Plimpton, to investigate the allegations against Moonves. The CBS board said it will also form a special committee to “help facilitate the investigation.” (CBS is also working with Proskauer Rose, a law firm that is looking into allegations of misconduct surrounding the departure of "CBS This Morning" anchor Charlie Rose.)

The company said the two lawyers in charge of the probe would be Mary Jo White, a former chairwoman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and former U.S. attorney in Manhattan who is now a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, and Nancy Kestenbaum, a former longtime senior prosecutor in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office who is now a partner at Covington & Burling.

"Mr. Moonves will have no role in the investigation and is entirely recused from it," CBS said, adding that it was taking no further action for now "pending discussion with counsel as to appropriate next steps."

Tuna Amobi, a media analyst at independent equity research firm CRFA said CBS would face an uncertain future without Moonves.

"His contributions have been quite remarkable by any objective measure and in terms of the strategy, it's his vision, and it's been driving the vision,” Amobi said. “A lot of investors bought into it. [The shares] would take a reset without him.”

The stock has traded with a "Les Moonves premium" of “10 percent to 15 percent," meaning investors are willing to pay more for shares because Moonves is in charge, Amobi said.

Moonves is one of the most influential people in Hollywood, running CBS network as well as the premium pay-TV service Showtime, the publishing company Simon & Schuster and the tech news website CNET.

Moonves, 68, came up through the program-making ranks and ran Warner Brothers Television, which developed hit shows "ER" and "Friends" during his tenure. Moonves is known to be highly involved in all aspects of the running of CBS from picking actors and producers to reading scripts. The company’s top management has also worked with the executive as a tight-knit team for many years.

The investigation comes as CBS faces a heated legal battle against its controlling shareholder, National Amusements. CBS voted recently to dilute the voting power of National Amusements, a move that is being challenged in court.