Lunch at Michael’s with CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl

By Lunch at Michael's Archives
Cover image for  article: Lunch at Michael’s with CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl

A short while before his first appearance as President of CBS Entertainment at the network’s annual Upfront Week presentation on the Carnegie Hall stage, Kelly Kahl joined Jack Myers and me for our first-ever dinner at Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica.  Owner Michael McCarty wasn’t in town at the time – he was tending to business at his New York City locale – but he left us in the able hands of his young son Chas, who manages the mothership, and his West Coast staff.  “I don’t think there is anyone working there over the age of 28,” McCarty had told us earlier, proudly assuring us that we would get the same quality care as we do in New York, the home of our usual Lunch at Michael’s™ interviews.

“I’m honored to be your first in L.A.,” Kahl said as we settled in for a night of casual conversation over a meal comprised of multiple small plate specialties of the house.  The upcoming high-stakes Upfront was looming, but Kahl was totally chill.  Of course, the mechanics of the presentation had already been in the works for weeks.

“We’re on draft six or seven already,” he said of the all-important script for the show.  "But it remains a work in progress right up to the night before and we always talk to sales before we put the finishing touches on our presentation to make sure our messaging is in line with theirs.”

It wouldn’t be Kahl’s first time on the Carnegie Hall stage – he’s been a part of previous CBS presentations – but it would be his first as Entertainment President.  (He was promoted to that position almost immediately after last year’s event.)  I couldn’t help but ask the routine question about what it’s like to play the world’s most famous stage.  “It’s nothing I would ever have wanted to do,” he said with a laugh.  “It’s not my nature.  It’s kind of surreal.”

One of the ways Kahl remains grounded at times like that is to think about his beloved grandfather, whose ring he has worn for years.  “My grandpa was a salesman for Pfizer,” Kahl said.  “If you listen to my mother and my aunt he was Pfizer’s No. 1 salesman in the country.  He died when I was eight or nine so I didn’t get as much time with him as I would have liked.  My grandma lived to be 101.  Going through her house they found the ring.  My mom asked if I wanted it.  I put it on and it was a perfect fit.  I didn’t resize it.  I wear it all the time.  As mushy as it is, I have a little piece of grandpa with me.  Walking out on stage at Carnegie Hall I think, ‘Okay, I have a little bit of salesman in my blood, so get out there and sell.’”

While gearing up to “sell” there also is the matter of much simultaneous last-minute decision-making, determining which new series to run with and which existing shows to cancel.  Kahl wasn’t offering any hints of the choices to come.  “We just started to see some of the new shows,” he said.  “It’s hard to evaluate until you’ve seen everything.  I do feel pretty good about it.  We told everyone in development that we are going to take a few shots, and I think we’ve taken some really good ones.  (As revealed on May 16, those “shots” include the comedies Happy Together and The Neighborhood, a reboot of Magnum, P.I. and the spiritual drama God Friended Me.)

Now it’s the balance of putting the schedule together,” he continued.  “To be frank, sometimes it’s hard because the majority of our schedule is pretty strong and stable.  It’s tough to take a shot and live with a [rating] that isn’t as strong as you’re used to seeing.

"The true hits tend to be surprises,” he added.  “The shows that break out are not the ones people panned necessarily but are often the ones people don’t give the time of day to.  I defy most people to say they saw this coming or that coming.  People liked This Is Us but I don’t think they were screaming that it was going to be the next big hit, or even The Good Doctor.  For us, nobody gave CSI the time of day.  Nobody looked at The Big Bang Theory and said, ‘That is going to be the No. 1 comedy for six or seven years in a row.’  We got some polite nods for Young Sheldon last year but nobody predicted it would do as well as it is.”

Before being named President of CBS Entertainment Kahl had spent most of his 22 years at the network focusing on scheduling.  (He simultaneously  did so for sibling The CW, as well.)  It’s something he has had a passion for since he was a child, though he didn’t realize it at the time.  (Perhaps a “young” Kelly should have been in the back seat of that car with young Sheldon Cooper and “young” Jo Ann Ross innocently discussing interests that would determine their futures in that hilarious video CBS showed during its Upfront presentation.)

“The first hook was cartoons,” he recalled.  “I distinctly remember when I was six years old they would put the cartoon schedule in the paper.  The Saturday morning lineups.  I had a weird fascination with that.  ‘Why is Super Friends at 9:30?  It was at 9 a.m. last year.  Why did they move it?’  The Saturday morning grid.”

It seems a certain movie also influenced Kahl in a way that would change his life.  “Disney had a movie called The Barefoot Executive,” he said.  “It starred a young Kurt Russell, and he worked at a network.  Joe Flynn was the head of the network.  Kurt was like an intern.  He had a pet monkey.  The conceit was he would sneak down into the screening room with his pet monkey and they would watch the pilots.  The monkey would get very excited about certain pilots.  Kurt would relay that to the head of the network and they thought the kid was amazing.  But it was the monkey making the choices!

"In Joe Flynn’s office, behind his desk was the scheduling board,” he continued.  Again, a programming grid had transfixed him.  “I don’t know why,” he laughed.  “I can’t explain it.  Oddly enough, two or three years ago Kurt Russell came in pitching a reality show.  After the meeting was over I pulled him aside and said, ‘I need you to know you are a good part of the reason that I am sitting here doing this today.’  He thought it was pretty funny.”

Kahl grew up in Burlington, Wisconsin, which he often visits and where his family still resides.  His dad, now retired, was the wood shop teacher at the high school Kahl attended.  “He was very popular because he didn’t care if you were going to college or if you were going to drive a dump truck,” Kahl recalled.  “It didn’t matter to him.  He was going to hopefully teach you some skills, and if you respected him he respected you.  When I go to my home town people will grab me and say, ‘You know, your father was a great man.  He made a real impact on a lot of kids lives.’  Just this fall they named the basketball court at the school after him.  It was quite an honor.  Kahl Court.  He taught for 44 years but even [though he is] retired he still goes to basketball games and runs the concession stand and stuff like that.”

Asked what it was like to attend the same school at which one of his parents was teacher, Kahl slyly replied, “We had to be kind of clever.  If you were called to the principal’s office you weren’t as worried about the principal as the second guy who came through the door.”

It comes as no surprise that the Milwaukee Brewers are his favorite team.  “My buddy and I are trying to get a documentary off the ground about the 82 Brewers,” he told us.  “These guys were the long hair, mustache, go out after every game guys.  The personality was a beer league softball team.  The city loved them for that.

“My dad is involved with athletics and mentors a lot of the young coaches,” he continued.  “One of those coaches was the coach of our high school baseball team.  He took a role doing community outreach for the Brewers and got to know Gorman Thomas very well.  Gorman was my hero.  He’s my Mickey Mantle!  Every summer our school has a fundraiser golf tournament with the athletic department.  I always go home to support it.  They were doing another fundraiser for the baseball team.  Coach calls me and says, ‘Can you get here this weekend (from L.A.)?  You’re riding in a cart with Gorman.’

“Sometimes you meet somebody you look up to and they fall short.  But in this case, Gorman was everything I hoped and then some.  By the end of the first hole he’s telling stories about the good old days.  Between shots all he wanted to talk about was NCIS, because it’s his favorite show.  So now we play in this tournament every year. Gorman, a few of my college roommates, and me.  It’s just magic.”

Kahl attended the University of Wisconsin, then made the move to L.A. to go to USC’s Annenberg School for Communications.  Before classes even started at USC he landed an internship at Lorimar Television.  “I was in the research department on the Sony lot,” he recalled.  “They were getting ready to move to the Warner Bros. lot.  It was at a time when there was some turnover in the company and Leslie Moonves was just assuming the head of Lorimar.  There was a lot of palace intrigue, people talking.  It was a lot of heavy stuff for a kid who wasn’t even getting paid.  Welcome to Hollywood!  Shit’s going down!”  He has since worked for Moonves for the entirety of his career in television.  "He's my TV dad!" Kahl told us.

He vividly recalled the first time he experienced the “magic” of Hollywood.  “When we were on the Warner Bros. lot they were shooting the first Batman movie.  Right next to our building was the Warner Bros. New York street.  They had it decked out for a snow scene.  The valley gets very hot, but I walked down New York street and I swear I felt cold even though it must have been 100 degrees.”

These days Kahl knows how to keep cool -- when he isn't running CBS Entertainment, he can often be found managing The Underground, a restaurant he owns in the South Bay not far from the home he shares with wife Kim and twin sons Thomas and Kyle (when they are home from college). It's somewhat remarkable that he finds the time, given his expanded role at the No. 1 network.

Over dessert Kahl ruminated on the differences between scheduling and programming.  “In scheduling the goal is to be super objective,” he said.  “All your children maybe aren’t as pretty.  In this role it’s a little different.  These are shows you have been in on the development of from a very early stage.  You have a little bit of a vested interest in how they do.  It’s a little harder.”

As Entertainment President he said he has more direct involvement with shows than ever before.  “We’re really fortunate to have great people on our team.  [Senior Executive Vice President of Programming] Thom Sherman is our head of creative now.  He’s so much better at this stuff than I am.  People who work in creative for a long time look at these things differently than I do.  I can’t micro-analyze like they do.  I look at things more from the big picture.

“When I first started in scheduling the advice I got from a good of people was never listen to sales,” he continued.  “I went in thinking that.  And it’s so wrong!  Sales is how we grow and profit as a company, so why wouldn’t you listen to them?  If sales knows that you have their back then they have your back.  I’m so lucky with [President and Chief Advertising Revenue Officer] Jo Ann Ross, [Executive Vice President, Primetime Sales and Innovation] Linda René and [Executive Vice President, Network Sales] Chris Simon.  If we want to do something a little crazy programming-wise their team is there for us.  The reverse is also true; if they ask for something they know we have their back.”

Thinking about the selling season to come, Kahl couldn’t contain his enthusiasm about his network.  “I think everyone is going to get smarter about being able to target audiences,” he said.  “We remain extremely confident that the more you drill down you will see that broadcast has the audience that advertisers want to reach.  Look at who is actually buying products … you will find tens of millions of them every night, many of them at CBS.”

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