CBS will finish the 2018-19 season as the most-watched broadcast network for the 11th year in a row, making for the perfect pitch to advertisers at its annual presentation on Wednesday during the series of events known as the upfronts.
The real story is not so simple. This is a network that has endured crises on several fronts over the last year and a half, and CBS must now show that it can fix its corporate culture, mend its damaged reputation and remain the ratings leader. At the same time, discussions taking place behind the scenes may affect the network’s future, as the CBS Corporation board reviews the benefits of a possible merger with Viacom.
The executives and stars on the Carnegie Hall stage at the network’s presentation on Wednesday were part of a company that has been through a lot in the last 18 months. Their former leader Leslie Moonves, a mainstay of network television, was fired in September after a dozen women publicly accused him of sexual misconduct. (He has denied the allegations.)
The vaunted CBS News division underwent upheaval, too. The network fired the anchor Charlie Rose, who was accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, as well as the “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager, after he sent a text message that threatened the career of a CBS correspondent looking into allegations of sexual harassment against him and Mr. Moonves. (Mr. Rose described the claims made against him as “not accurate,” and Mr. Fager called the allegations against him “false.”)
The promotion of Susan Zirinsky, a longtime news producer who replaced David Rhodes as the president of CBS News in January, was a sign that the troubles in that division were over. Ms. Zirinsky’s changes have included pushing the anchor Jeff Glor out of “CBS Evening News” and giving his chair to Norah O’Donnell.
On the prime-time front, the network paid a $9.5 million settlement to Eliza Dushku, a former co-star of one of the network’s top shows, “Bull,” after she accused the program’s star, Michael Weatherly, of sexual harassment. When The New York Times reported on the settlement in December, Mr. Weatherly said, “I am sorry and regret the pain this caused Eliza.” Last week, on the day CBS announced it had renewed his show for a fourth season, Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin, said it would no longer be a producer of “Bull.”
“He made a mistake, he admitted to that mistake,” Kelly Kahl, the lead entertainment executive for CBS, said of Mr. Weatherly at a media gathering on Wednesday. “We believe Michael was honest in his remorse, and I personally believe people can make a mistake and recover from that.”
The allegations concerning “Bull” came to light not long after the network parted ways with Brad Kern, a former showrunner of another hit, “NCIS: New Orleans,” after he was accused of harassment and making racially insensitive remarks.
CBS now has another problem unrelated to its workplace culture: the loss of its biggest hit, with “The Big Bang Theory” wrapping production after 12 years. In its final season, the Chuck Lorre-produced comedy juggernaut has averaged 17.3 million viewers a week, making it the most-viewed network entertainment show, second only to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” It was also popular among the group advertisers crave: 18- to 49-year-olds.
“Is it kind of a bummer to lose ‘Big Bang Theory’? Of course it is,” Mr. Kahl said.
The network also faces an uncertain future: Shari Redstone, the executive in charge of the CBS Corporation’s parent company, National Amusements, has made no secret of her desire to merge CBS with its corporate sibling, Viacom, the home of MTV and Paramount Pictures, a plan that Mr. Moonves fought.
Beneath the uncertainty, though, CBS still has something other networks envy: millions of loyal (if graying) viewers, thanks to its sturdy cop shows, sitcoms, Sunday N.F.L. broadcasts and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” the biggest ratings hit in late night. For more innovative fare, the CBS Corporation has Showtime, the cable home of “Billions” and “Desus & Mero,” and CBS All Access, the streaming service that signed Jordan Peele for a reboot of “The Twilight Zone.”
The company remains a reliable Wall Street pick, too. The stock has shot up more than sevenfold since CBS started its ratings run more than a decade ago. Episodes of the network’s prime-time programs average nine million viewers. NBC is the closest competitor, at 7.3 million.
Mario J. Gabelli, the chief executive of Gamco Investors, which owns more than $160 million in CBS shares, said its fortunes would not fall overnight, thanks, in part, to an increase in viewership and accompanying rise in ad spending expected to go along with the 2020 presidential election.
“After that, we’ll see,” Mr. Gabelli said.
With Mr. Moonves gone, a tie-up with Viacom appears more likely. The boards of the CBS Corporation and Viacom, which also owns BET, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, have been separately conducting reviews of the possible merger, according to three people familiar with the details.
Ms. Redstone herself is barred from initiating a merger for at least another year, part of a settlement she reached after a legal kerfuffle last year with the CBS Corporation board. Leaders at the two companies can still reach a deal without her input.
A key issue is coming to an agreement on the relative value of each company’s stock, which will determine the ratio of shares that investors in the two companies would receive. The two boards are working through that math, the people said.
Wall Street values CBS at $17.8 billion and Viacom at around $11.6 billion. Robert M. Bakish, the chief executive of Viacom, has gained Ms. Redstone’s trust, the people said, and is a top contender to lead the combined companies.
CBS, Viacom and Ms. Redstone declined to comment.
To fill the leadership void left by Mr. Moonves’s firing, the CBS Corporation appointed Joseph Ianniello as its acting chief executive and named Showtime’s chief executive, David Nevins, as the head of programming.
This year, he will talk up the fall schedule in place of Mr. Moonves, who stood center stage at Carnegie Hall last May, basking in prolonged applause from a crowd comprising the employees in his charge and the ad executives he had schmoozed so well.
That appearance took place months before the accusations of sexual misconduct appeared in The New Yorker and set his downfall in motion. But Mr. Moonves seemed on thin ice even then, having entered into the heated legal duel with Ms. Redstone over her merger idea.
“I personally consider CBS’s to be the greatest story ever told,” Mr. Moonves said, once the ovation had died down.
He had a strong influence on many of CBS’s top shows and was also hands-on when it came to the prime-time schedule. But Mr. Nevins said the network had not missed a beat.
“We all came to this in a real consensus way,” he said of the new lineup on Wednesday.
With the storm having apparently passed, the reputational hit suffered by CBS was still a factor at the upfront presentations this week. The ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel couldn’t resist mentioning Mr. Moonves’s Carnegie Hall swan song during that network’s presentation on Tuesday.
“Remember last year, when you guys gave Les Moonves a standing ovation?” he said to a crowd of advertisers and media executives at Lincoln Center. “That was funny.”