CBS Could Face Boycott Over CEO Moonves Trouble

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The argument about whether CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS) CEO Les Moonves committed sexual harassment has teetered back and forth as the company’s board hired outside counsel to examine accusations. One event might tip the board’s decision. CBS is a potential target for boycotts from women’s groups and other organizations that have taken tough stances against sexual misconduct in the workplace. A boycott, particularly if it triggers worry among large advertisers, would hurt both CBS’s revenue and its already tarnished reputation.

Any boycott is unlikely to take more than a very modest toll one CBS’s sales. Its advertising revenue last quarter was $1.3 billion. The company can afford any boycott sales erosion without undermining earnings. That leaves the reputation problem among advertisers as the more troubling problem.

Because of CBS’s size as a traditional television network, it has relationships with hundreds of advertisers, but a small number of them have a lion’s share of the market. Among these are wireless companies Sprint and Verizon, as well as insurance companies GEICO and Allstate. Among retailers, Target is a major TV advertiser.

Most of TV’s top advertisers have one thing in common. They have millions of customers, some of whom are bound to have opinions on the CBS CEO problem. None of these companies want to deal with protests from consumers or advocacy groups.

The most recent boycott trouble faced by large TV networks were controversies over comments by Fox commentator Laura Ingraham and the cancellation of popular “Roseanne” after a racist comment by its star Roseanne Barr. Ingraham survived a firestorm. Barr did not. Neither Fox nor NBC wanted to risk the ire of consumers or advertises.

If Moonves keeps his job for more than a few days, groups that support women’s rights in the workplace will start to question whether he is a visible example that the system that often protects powerful men from harassment charges is still in place. These groups know media companies are susceptible to concerns by their largest clients. CBS inevitably will be a target, if history is a fair indication.