On Friday, January 25, Adam Targum, an executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans, was fired from the CBS program. The departure of Targum, who had been hired last spring as the show’s second-in-command, follows the October 2018 firing of Brad Kern, the previous showrunner of NCIS: New Orleans.
Problems of morale have dogged NCIS: New Orleans, which debuted in 2014, for much of its relatively short life. Expectations that the workplace culture would notably improve once executive producer Christopher Silber was elevated to showrunner last year ended up being misplaced, according to multiple sources. These individuals say that problems persisted even after Kern left.
One source described the atmosphere this season as “miserable,” in part due to Targum’s allegedly aggressive demeanor, demeaning remarks, and combative leadership style.
“Targum has an abrasive personality that doesn’t foster collaboration, rather submission to his ideas,” said an NCIS: New Orleans source with extensive knowledge of the situation.
According to sources close to the show, Targum was let go as a result of a complaint made within the last two weeks to CBS’s human-resources department. Vulture was not able to determine the nature of that complaint, and CBS would not comment on the matter. What is known is that the Targum inquiry was the fourth HR investigation into an NCIS: New Orleans executive producer in less than three years.
The previous three HR inquiries all revolved around Kern, beginning in June 2016; a second began in the fall of that year. Complaints made during those investigations, according a 2017 news story about them, included allegations that Kern harassed and mistreated women; repeatedly demeaned a woman who was pumping breast milk at work; made sexist remarks; and generally created a vindictive atmosphere, among other issues.
Kern held on to the NCIS: New Orleans showrunner job through the spring of 2018, and CBS signed him to a new two-year deal around that time. Less than a year ago, amid news coverage of problems at the show, Kern was demoted to consulting producer and Silber was promoted to showrunner. In June 2018, a third inquiry — this time by outside counsel hired by CBS — got underway, and Kern was fired in October. While CBS has never specified the reasons for his firing, it came one month after the resignation of Leslie Moonves, the powerful CBS CEO who was the subject of multiple stories about his alleged harassment, abuse, assault, and intimidation of a large number of women.
A new era at NCIS: New Orleans was supposed to begin with the show’s fifth season, with Silber as showrunner and Targum as his chief lieutenant. One source was wary of Silber’s promotion, given that, in this person’s words, he was “useless at correcting the atmosphere” at NCIS: New Orleans. That said, another source with direct knowledge of the situation said that “Chris was the most qualified person to be promoted. He had been with the show since season one and was the most senior writer next to Brad. Chris was also well-liked by the production crew.” (Emails to Silber and Targum were not returned by the time of publication.)
During the show’s current season, sources say, the atmosphere at NCIS: New Orleans did not notably improve, especially with Targum running the writers room for long stretches. Targum had an insistent, overpowering manner that led one source to say that he “bullies” people.
“He is obnoxious, and he says dumb things all day long. He’s incredibly tone-deaf, and if a guy like this is put into a room with staff that’s been through a lot of trauma in the past two years, there are going to be problems,” said a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
Prior to his stint on NCIS: New Orleans, Targum’s most recent job was as showrunner of Deadly Class, a Syfy drama produced by Universal Cable Productions and Sony Pictures Television. Targum was announced as showrunner in September 2017 and was with the show through the pilot. According to sources close to the show, he was fired before the program was picked up to series on April 18, 2018. News stories at the time cited “creative differences” as the reason for Targum’s departure.
As a team running the NCIS: New Orleans writers room, Targum and Silber, one source said, have caused consternation among the writing staff by doing rewrites that conflict with each other, leading to “chaos” regarding scripts.
Others have noted that Silber spends much of his time in postproduction or in his office. It led one source to speculate that Silber “doesn’t want to deal with the problem.” Of course, it’s not unusual for showrunners to work on tasks that take them away from the writing staff for hours or even days at a time, and it’s normal for showrunners to delegate key responsibilities to the show’s second-in-command. But some sources say Silber has spent an unusually large amount of time away from the writers room.
Two sources said a season-five idea of Targum’s was particularly distasteful to the writing staff. These sources say Targum pitched a villainous character who would use a wheelchair. Targum suggested that the character’s use of a wheelchair would mean that he “can’t get away.”
Targum pitched this idea on two different occasions, and two sources indicate that a number of staff members found it insensitive and offensive. Some negative reactions were driven in part by the fact that one person in the NCIS: New Orleans writers room uses a wheelchair. That person was present at least one of the times Targum made these remarks. Attempts to reach this individual for comment were unsuccessful.
CBS executives, including Amy Reisenbach, executive vice-president of current programs, were made aware of the problems that multiple members of the staff had with Targum, and were also informed of the overall issues that some have with the show’s leadership, according to several sources.
Hearing that the atmosphere at the show continued to be unpleasant is “a surprise” that “disappoints me as someone who believed that elevating Chris was the right move for the show,” one former NCIS: New Orleans employee said.
All in all, getting rid of Kern didn’t address the management issues at the show, one source said. “It put a small Band-Aid on the problem — and then created a new one.”
Of course, there is nothing about the content or premise of NCIS: New Orleans that makes the show especially prone to reports of questionable behavior behind the scenes. It is a mainstream spinoff of a well-known, financially lucrative TV franchise. But it’s that very status — as an untrendy, workaday show that employs hundreds of entertainment-industry professionals — that makes its past and present important. It provides a somewhat extreme but unsurprising set of indicators about how the culture of CBS has operated for a long time. Of the more than 20 sources Vulture spoke to for this story, the majority are past or present CBS employees, and about a dozen work for or have been employed by NCIS: New Orleans. Most did not want their names used for fear of retaliation.
One showrunner who has worked at CBS and elsewhere said, “For decades, the network taught everyone that nothing mattered except Les Moonves and whoever is No. 1 on the call sheet.”
That sentiment was clear around the set of NCIS: New Orleans when Kern was running the show. During his reign, Kern had established an atmosphere in which “outright sexism and misogyny” were often parts of “normal conversation” in the writers room, according to one former writer for the show.
One of the most notable instances of that came in June of 2016, when Kern told a group of NCIS: New Orleans employees that “we should cast Eliza Dushku because Les Moonves wants to fuck her,” according to multiple sources. Two sources heard Kern repeat this sentiment about the actress on more than one occasion.
“He definitely said it more than once, because he thought that indicated, This is how hooked up I am,” says a source who worked on NCIS: New Orleans at the time. This person adds that there were between eight or ten employees around when Kern allegedly made these remarks. “He was performing for the group. He was in storyteller mode to the whole room,” this source added.
Kern’s alleged comments came nearly a year before Dushku was hired for a recurring role on the CBS series Bull. In December, the New York Times reported that the actress and producer received a $9.5 million settlement, resulting from harassing comments and behavior that Dushku allegedly endured on the set of Bull.
Three former NCIS: New Orleans employees told Vulture that during the course of the initial investigation into Kern in 2016, they informed CBS HR vice-president Timothy Farrell about the statements Kern had made regarding Dushku and Moonves.
One former NCIS: New Orleans employee said she told Farrell during the course of that first investigation that she thought Kern’s Dushku remarks, on their own, “constituted a firing offense, because it directly told the entire female staff that this is how they would be judged at CBS.” This source recalls Farrell replying that “the allegations were being taken very seriously and were being shared with very senior people.”
In a letter dated July 11, 2016, which Farrell sent to participants of the first Kern investigation at the conclusion of that inquiry, Farrell stated that the HR department had looked into claims that Kern had “made inappropriate comments related to women, made statements that referred to women in a negative light, applied gender-based and racial stereotypes, used an abrasive and/or demeaning tone, and made a disparaging remark about an actress” — presumably Dushku. Farrell wrote that “we were unable to conclude that Mr. Kern engaged in discrimination or harassment.” (Vulture first reported on Moonves allegedly telling Kern that he wanted to sleep with an actress in August 2018; at that time, the full scope of what CBS HR knew about those comments was not known, and reporting on that front was still in progress, so Dushku was not named.)
It is unclear whether Dushku was ever offered a role on NCIS: New Orleans, and there is no indication that she had any interactions whatsoever with Moonves. Through a representative, Dushku declined to comment for this piece. But in a December piece for the Boston Globe about CBS’s mistreatment of her, Dushku wrote that in the months prior to taking a role on Bull, the network “vigorously courted” her for “several” CBS shows. The end result was the Bull role.
Through a representative, Kern issued the following statement to Vulture: “Although I have chosen not to debate this matter in the press, I feel compelled to let you know the following: I have not communicated directly with Les Moonves in over 25 years in any situation, including in regards to Eliza Dushku.”
While Kern denied hearing this from Moonves directly, some former NCIS: New Orleans employees have wondered whether the word went out from on high to hire Dushku, no matter what. “It didn’t work out on our show, but it worked out on Bull,” says a former NCIS: New Orleans employee. “I think that’s why she was treated like shit from day one. If she had come on our show, everyone would’ve known exactly why she was there.”
CBS was sent a list of questions about the assertions in this story, including those regarding Moonves and Kern and anything either may have said about Dushku. CBS was also asked if any employees made an effort to ensure that Dushku was treated professionally during her time on Bull, given that her name had come up in an HR investigation prior to her arrival on the show.
In response to those queries, CBS issued a statement: “As previously reported, the claims regarding NCIS: New Orleans in 2016 have been addressed. Any subsequent reports or claims involving inappropriate comments or objectionable behavior in the writers room — or anywhere on the production — will be investigated, and action will be taken to address any findings inconsistent with a safe, respectful, and inclusive workplace.”
A representative for Moonves was sent multiple questions about the allegations contained in this story. The representative replied: “Mr. Moonves never made that statement, or conveyed anything remotely like it, to Brad Kern or anyone else.”
Jeffrey Lieber, the original showrunner and executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans, shared a similar story from his time running the show. He told Vulture that in 2014 and 2015, he was put under a “great deal of pressure to get onboard with the firing” of Zoe McLellan, who played Meredith Brody in the first two seasons of the CBS drama.
At first, Lieber didn’t understand where the pressure to get rid of McLellan was coming from and why it was so unrelenting. “I pushed back,” Lieber said. “I thought she was doing a good job and that the audience was connected to her, especially because testing bore that out. Every time the show was tested, Zoe got the same or better scores as the other second lead on the show. So why so much focus on just Zoe? It didn’t make sense to me.”
In Lieber’s view, any potential issue with McLellan had to do with her character, who hadn’t been filled out as vividly as she could have been.
“I set about to deepen her character,” Lieber recalls. “We did a couple episodes setting up a backstory, a mistake the character made that was haunting her. Zoe did a good job in the episodes, which were well-received, but the pressure kept coming. Finally, one powerful man putting pressure on me just admitted to me that the problem was that Les didn’t find her ‘fuckable’ enough, and that he had felt that way from day one.” (Attempts made to reach McLellan through her representatives were unsuccessful.)
After Lieber departed over creative differences and Kern arrived at NCIS: New Orleans midway through the show’s second season, Kern said disparaging things about McLellan, according to four sources who heard these comments. At one point, he told staffers that he did not find her sexually attractive. “‘Why would [viewers] care? Why would they watch?’ That was his gauge of whether an actress was good,” a former NCIS: New Orleans employee recalled.
In 2017, according to one source, Kern shared with a group of employees what drove the departure of McLellan. At the time, the explanation the media was given was that the decision to write off her character was a creative one, but some NCIS: New Orleans employees recall being told a different story.
“I recall Brad Kern telling [employees] how they fired McLellan because she couldn’t move well (i.e., not athletic at all), and Les didn’t think she was fuckable,” according to a former employee of NCIS: New Orleans.
Through a representative, Kern stated, “I had, and will always have, the utmost respect for both Eliza Dushku and Zoe McLellan, and any personnel decisions I made at NCIS: New Orleans were motivated solely by what I believed would best advance the story line and character relationships of the show.”
Since Moonves’s departure, a number of changes have been made to upper management at CBS: Longtime executive Joe Ianniello has been named interim CEO; the company has hired a chief people officer, Laurie Rosenfield; and David Nevins, the head of Showtime, was named CBS’s chief creative officer last year. One longtime CBS employee made the case that the swiftness with which the network handled the Targum situation is a sign that it may be changing in the post-Moonves era.
“Mistakes have been made at this show and elsewhere. There’s no doubt that things needed to change here,” said that source, who added that new leadership at the top means that “complaints and problems are being viewed through a new lens. And it’s been made very clear that there have to be consequences for these changes to stick.”
However, most of the sources Vulture spoke to for this story are deeply wary of the idea that CBS is changing in a fundamental way.
“Any action by CBS has been a reactive one, and not a proactive move to change,” said one source. “The decisions that management does ultimately make are in the interest of making problems go away, and not actually actively making the work environment better.”
Of course, the high-profile departures of well-known figures like Moonves, Charlie Rose, and 60 Minutes executive Jeffrey Fager last year were seismic events in the company’s history. But the real work is still ahead; deeper and more profound changes are necessary, multiple sources told Vulture.
“If they want to improve the working conditions on that show, they have to start fresh, and that means they have to look at the executives that were there year after year. And I’m not trying to indict every executive. I know that there are good executives there,” says an experienced TV writer who worked for NCIS: New Orleans for a time. “But there also were a lot of people that knew exactly what was going on and, at best, looked the other way, and at worst, actively covered it up and lied to people about what was going on.”
The CBS statement sent to Vulture consisted of two paragraphs: The first one, about creating a safe and inclusive workplace, is above. The second is below.
“During the past few months, our Company has clearly communicated that our culture is a top priority; this includes the production offices and sets of our shows,” the statement said. “All show employees, including showrunners, are required to take annual non-harassment training. In 2019, we are committing additional significant resources to expand these education and training programs to foster the best possible creative culture and workplace environment for the production process.”