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Who Will Les Moonves’ Permanent CBS Replacement Be? Some Contenders

Dade Hayes, Dawn C. Chmielewski and Dominic Patten

While the media business is still reckoning with the stunning departure of CBS chief Les Moonves after a 24-year run, some names already are being bandied about as potential successors.

On an interim basis, COO Joe Ianniello has been bumped up to CEO and the newly constituted CBS board will soon begin the formal search process. Most insiders and analysts we’ve been speaking with view the job of the permanent CEO as largely one of caretaker given the likelihood of a CBS-Viacom merger or, failing that, other M&A scenarios.

Under the terms of the Moonves settlement, controlling shareholder National Amusements agreed not to initiate merger talks with CBS and Viacom for two years — but the boards could independently propose a reunion or seek out other M&A. “As CBS searches for a new CEO, we expect the newly composed Board of Directors to focus on long-term strategic planning and set up a clear plan for succession,” wrote BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield in a blog post. He expects CBS and Viacom to get back together in 2019.

The Viacom CEO transition in 2016 is a helpful reference for how CBS’s executive search might proceed. After the ouster of Philippe Dauman, and the appointment of five independent board members, the directors spent time many weeks meeting with each of the divisional heads. That’s how the board identified an internal candidate, Bob Bakish, as Dauman’s successor. The executive impressed the directors when he gave his presentation about Viacom’s international operations.

Sometimes, big personalities like Moonves’ can obscure the talent that’s elsewhere in a company. It’s possible that internal candidates will emerge from the CBS ranks to lead the media company, going forward.

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The decision about whom CBS’s directors select to lead the media company into the future will be informed by the board’s goals for the company, and whether they decide to position the company for an eventual sale or merger, or evolve it as a stand-alone company. The vacancy also presents an opportunity to elevate a female executive to the senior-most role, to demonstrate its commitment to create a safe work environment.

All of that said, here are some of the media figures who might be in the running:

Joe Ianniello — As the company’s chief operating officer and Moonves’ heir apparent, he oversaw the monetization of CBS shows across multiple platforms and the licensing of digital services. He’s widely respected by Wall Street, which reacted positively today to his promises of “providing continuity and stability” to the beleaguered company. But he may well be tainted by his close working relationship with Moonves. (Conspiratorial, anti-Redstone TigerText messages surfaced in CBS’s legal battle with National Amusements that clearly won’t help his chances.) He wouldn’t be the choice if directors want to signal a culture change to employees and the industry.

Richard Parsons — The former Time Warner CEO with a banking background joined the board of CBS during the company’s standoff with National Amusements. He is seen as a seasoned veteran presence who could articulate the company’s value to Wall Street. Then again, also experienced enough to not be amenable to direction, something Moonves chafed at throughout his 12 years as CEO but a prerequisite for this job.

Tom Staggs — The former Disney executive had a stellar run and won Wall Street’s confidence during his tenure as CFO. After being officially designated as CEO Bob Iger’s successor, he was ousted in a power struggle in 2016. In NFL Draft parlance, he could be seen as the best athlete on the board and someone with deep experience translating traditional media assets into something investors want to buy into.

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Nina Tassler — If any CBS alum would have a shot, it could be Tassler. As head of the company’s entertainment division during its glory run of the 2000s and the first half of this decade, she is widely respected by talent and as a woman who would personify the dawning of a new era at CBS. She and producer Denise Di Novi formed PatMa Productions, an indie studio producing content with an emphasis on inclusion.

David Nevins — The Showtime CEO is an executive with a reputation for creating quality TV that dates from his time as senior vice president of primetime series at NBC. He’s also served as programming executive at Fox Broadcasting and at Imagine Television. His first series at Showtime, Homeland, collected an Emmy award for best drama. The premium pay network also has produced such acclaimed series as Ray Donovan, Masters of Sex and Billions.

Dana Walden — The 20th Century Fox Television executive is highly regarded among Hollywood’s writers, producers, and talent agents. With The Walt Disney Co.’s pending acquisition of Fox, she is expected to take over the ABC television network, in an announcement that could come in a matter of weeks. But some have bandied her name about as a long-shot contender for the top CBS job.

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